Ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka
July 9, 2009 — Comment
Written by A. Sivanandan
The Institute of Race Relations’ director explains the roots of ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka in a speech to ‘Marxism 2009’.
‘It’s difficult to talk dispassionately about what is going on in my country, when the horror of what the government is doing to a civilian Tamil population – already shelled and burned out of their existence and now herded into concentration camps and starved of food and medicine – revisits me to the pogrom of 1958 when my parents’ house was attacked by a Sinhalese mob, my nephew had petrol thrown on him and burnt alive, and friends and relatives disappeared into refugee camps. I was a Tamil married to a Sinhalese with three children, and I could only see a future of hate stretching out before them. I left with my family, and came to England.
There is nothing, nothing, so horrendous as communal war, ethnic war. Overnight your friend becomes your enemy, every look of your neighbour is laden with threat, every passer-by is an informant. You walk the streets on tiptoe, casting nervous glances over your shoulder; you are tight, on edge, the sky lowers with menace.
Only one thing is worse – and that is when your government exploits communal differences, stokes ethnic and religious fears, all in the pursuit of power. In the process, it engenders a political culture of censorship and disinformation, assassination of journalists who speak out, extra-judicial killings by police and army, government without opposition – a culture that has to be broken if it is not to descend into dictatorship.
And it is with that in mind that I want to examine briefly the 150 years (more or less) of British rule, the sixty years of independence, the fifty years of ethnic cleansing within that and, within that, the twenty-five years of civil war that have brought Sri Lanka to this pass.
The Portuguese and the Dutch had occupied the Maritime Provinces in the 16th-18th centuries in pursuit of the spice trade and strategic sea routes. But it was the British who from 1815 came to occupy the whole of the country, turned paddy fields into tea estates, dispossessed the peasantry and brought in indentured labour from South India to work in the plantations. English was made the official language and Christianity the favoured religion and a pervasive British culture won over the subject peoples to their own subjection. Incidentally, it is important to distinguish between the Tamils who were brought to Ceylon by the British and the indigenous Tamils who have been there from time immemorial.
Ceylon got its independence in 1948 on the back of the Indian nationalist struggle. Hence it did not go through the process of nation building that a nationalist struggle involves. Instead, it was regarded as a model colony -with an English-educated elite, universal suffrage, and an elected assembly – deserving of self-government.
These however turned out to be the trappings of capitalist democracy super-imposed on a feudal infrastructure – a democratic top-dressing on a feudal base. But then, colonial capitalism is a hybrid, a mutant. It underdevelops some parts of the country while the part it develops is not consonant with the country’s needs or growth. Nor does it throw up institutions and structures that sustain democracy. Capitalism in the periphery, unlike capitalism at the centre, does not engender an organic relationship between the political, economic and cultural instances. It is a disorganic capitalism that produces disorganic development and a malformed democracy.
Power, then, was still in the hands of the feudal elite, the landed aristocracy. And almost the first thing that an independent government under D. S. Senanayake, “the father of the nation”, did was to disenfranchise the “plantation Tamils” who were now into their third and fourth generations – thereby establishing a Sinhalese electoral majority in the upcountry areas. This was followed by colonisation schemes that settled Sinhalese peasants in the predominantly Tamil-speaking north-east – thereby changing the ethnic demography of the area. And although elections were on party lines, the parties themselves – with the exception of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Trotskyists and the Communist Party (CP) – operated on feudal allegiances. Hence the government that ensued was government by dynasty. The first prime minister was succeeded by his son, Dudley Senanayake, and subsequently by his nephew, Sir John Kotelawela and so on. So that the ruling United National Party, (U.N.P.), was more appositely known as the Uncle Nephew Party.
The breakthrough came in 1956 when the Oxford-educated Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike decided that the only way that a distant relative like him could break into the dynastic succession was to resort to the ethnic politics of language and religion that would guarantee him a ready-made electoral majority. The Sinhala speaking population, after all, amounted to something like 70 per cent (the Tamils around 20 per cent) and they were mostly Buddhists. All he was doing, as a nationalist and patriot was returning power to the people, restituting their ancient rights. And so he came to power on the twin platforms of making Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the state religion. The language policy was to be introduced within 24 hours of his taking office – and all government servants would have to learn to conduct business in Sinhala within a given period if they were to keep their jobs. Sinhala would also constitute the medium of instruction in schools.
Bandaranaike had struck at the heart of Tamil livelihood and achievement. Coming from the arid north of the country, where nothing grew except children, the Tamil man’s chief industry was the government service, and education, English education, his passport. And Britain’s divide and rule policies encouraged and reinforced the growth of a class of Tamil bureaucrats. So that at independence they were over-represented in the administrative services and the professions.
Bandaranaike’s policies were meant to put an end to that but, in the event, they degraded the mother tongue of a people who held up Tamil as an ancient language (which it was) and its considerable literature as their bounteous heritage. In protest Tamil leaders staged a mass non-violent sit-down in front of the Houses of Parliament and were beaten up by government-sponsored goondas for their pains – giving meaning to the phrase sitting ducks.
And there begins the two trajectories of ethnic cleansing: the “legal” and the illegal, the civil and the military, the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, each overlapping and reinforcing each other. Ethnic cleansing is a process not an isolate, genocide its logical conclusion.
The prime minister, having divested himself of his Oxford bags for national dress, Christianity for Buddhism, English for Sinhala, was caught now between his social democratic principles and his nationalist practice, and proposed to make Tamil a regional language. But his ministers and the Opposition upped the racist ante and the Buddhist monks, whom Bandaranaike himself was instrumental in bringing out of the monasteries and on to the hustings where their influence was decisive, demanded that he return to his original remit. Peaceful Tamil demonstrations were met with police violence, participants travelling to a Tamil convention in the North in May 1958 were taken off the trains, cars and buses and beaten up by goon squads organised by Sinhalese politicians. Attacks on Tamils in their homes, on the street and work-places right across the country followed. Bandaranaike vacillated and a monk shot him dead. The chickens had come home to roost.
From then on the pattern of Tamil subjugation was set: racist legislation followed by Tamil resistance, followed by conciliatory government gestures, followed by Opposition rejectionism, followed by anti-Tamil riots instigated by Buddhist priests and politicians, escalating Tamil resistance, and so on – except that the mode of resistance varied and intensified with each tightening of the ethnic-cleansing screw and led to armed struggle and civil war.
I do not want to go into the details of that sequence here (for those who are interested there is a 1984 article of mine on the IRR’s website which goes into the specifics and is entitled ‘Sri Lanka: racism and the politics of underdevelopment’). It is enough to note the key acts of successive Sinhalese-dominated governments that led to the spiralling cycle of repression and resistance. If Mr Bandaranaike had cut out the mother tongue of the Tamils, it was left to Mrs Bandaranaike to bring the Tamils down to their knees – by using the language provision to remove and exclude Tamils from the police, the army, the courts and government service generally, further colonising traditionally Tamil areas of the north-east with Sinhalese from the South, repatriating the already disenfranchised Indian Tamil plantation workers and, more crucially, requiring Tamil students to score higher marks than their Sinhalese counterparts to enter university – on the grounds that Tamils should not continue to be over-represented in higher education and the professions.
At one stroke, Mrs Bandaranaike had cut the ground from under the feet of Tamil youth. At one stroke she had blighted their future. You take away a people’s language and you take away their identity. You take away their land and you take away their livelihood. You take away their education and you take away their hopes and aspirations. They had seen their parents try reason and reconciliation, but to no avail. They had seen them try non-violent resistance only to be met with violence. They had seen their representatives in the Federal Party running between the government and the Opposition with their electoral begging bowl. And they had seen the Left, the Trotskyists and the CP, who had once stood square against racist laws and for the parity of language, succumb at last to Mrs Bandaranaike’s blandishments of nationalisation in exchange for dropping their call for parity, and join her United Front government.
The Left in Ceylon, and the Trotskyist LSSP, in particular, had hitherto had a noble history. Formed in the 1930s, during the malaria epidemic and led by doctors, they had set up people’s dispensaries in the villages to treat patients free of charge. They had, along with the CP, politicised the urban working class and engendered a flourishing trade union movement. And in 1953, when the UNP government withdrew its subsidised rice ration at a time of rising food prices, they brought out the country in a hartal (cessation of all work) and drove a beleaguered cabinet into the safety of a ship in the harbour. But 1953 also marks the Left’s failure – for instead of pressing home the advantage, a middle-class leadership took fright at the enormity of its own success, agreed to talks and called off the hartal. The moment of revolution had passed, and from then on Parliament became the Left’s pitch – landing them, as I mentioned before, in Mrs Bandaranaike’s racist government. But the final degradation was yet to come. Asked to frame a new constitution, Dr Colin R de Silva, LSSP historian, now made a constitutional proviso for the repatriation of disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers.
There was still the self-styled Marxist Sinhala youth movement, the JVP, the People’s Liberation Front, whom the Bandaranaike government had to contend with. But their insurrection in 1971 was ruthlessly put down and their protagonists murdered by the army and the police. Their politics though claiming to be Marxist stirred up racial animosity by stoking fears of “Indian expansionism”. Their second coming in 1987-89, though laced with anti-Tamil propaganda, was even more mercilessly put down by the Jayawardene government. Today they are the most virulent racists in the Rajapakse coalition government – second only to the Aryanists of the JHU, National Heritage Party of the Buddhist monks.
The degradation of the Left engendered the degradation of the intelligentsia who now turned to middle of the road reformist politics. The Tamil youth looked around and saw no allies in the South. Nothing and no one seemed to work for them. They had only themselves to rely on. They had no choice but to take up arms. (The violence of the violated is never a matter of choice, but a symptom of choicelessness – and often it is a violence that takes on a life of its own and becomes distorted and self-defeating.)
The youths began with robbing a bank or two, stealing arms from police stations – and making their getaway on bicycles. The north, and Jaffna in particular, is not orthodox guerrilla country with mountains and forests to hide in, but its villages – a maze of narrow twisting lanes and by-lanes tucked away behind large dense palmyrah-leaf fences – are bicycle country inhospitable to motor vehicles. Bicycles, besides, were the Jaffna man’s chief mode of transport even in the towns, and “the getaways” were lost among them. And as the frustrations of the police increased and the stories of the hold-ups became legend, the parents and elders closed ranks behind their young. Their generation had been stereotyped as weak and cowardly and they had been brought down to their knees by government after Sinhalese government. Their young had now set them on their feet. They were “their Boys” and “Thambi” (younger brother) their leader. They would keep faith by them, give them sanctuary, let them disappear among their midst – be water to their fish.
But the romance of the Robin Hood period turned sour and vicious in the late 1970s when the Jayawardene government let the police loose in Jaffna to break up peaceful demonstrations, arrest and torture Tamil youth, burn down the Jaffna bazaar when refused free foodstuffs – and generally lord over it the Tamil people. And this in turn led to the reprisal killings of policemen by the Boys. In 1979 the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act and sent the army to Jaffna with instructions to “wipe out terrorism within six months”. The imprisonment and torture of innocent Tamils that followed in the wake of the PTA drove the civilian population further into the arms of the emerging militant groups, all demanding a separate Tamil state, Eelam, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) the most militant of them.
In 1981 security forces burnt down the Jaffna library, with its “ola” manuscripts and rare literature, the epicentre of Tamil learning and culture. In the same year Gandhiyam, a refugee camp turned farm, set up by a Tamil doctor to restore refugees to some sort of normal life, was over-run by the police – and its organisers killed or imprisoned. In 1983 the Tigers killed thirteen soldiers in Jaffna and the government brought their bodies to Colombo and put them on display before an angry Sinhalese crowd and so provoked “the riots”(pogroms really) that followed culminating in the killing of Tamils prisoners in Welikade jail, awaiting trial under the PTA, by Sinhalese prisoners whose cells the guards forgot to lock!
That’s when the civil war began in earnest – with each side, the government and the guerrillas, ratcheting up the terror count, with the occasional pause for “talks” or peace mediation, during which each side refurbished its forces and came out more intransigent than ever. The government now added an official military dimension to civil ethnic cleansing by letting loose its private armies to terrorise Tamils and drive them from their homes. Refugee camps were attacked, its inmates killed or driven out, Tamil plantation workers were forcibly taken from their houses and dumped hundreds of miles away by thugs in the pay of the Minister of Industries in trucks provided by him. (The state against its Tamils.)
The LTTE’s guerrilla struggle, likewise, had degenerated into ad hoc militarism with suicide bombings and assassinations. And politics went out of the window. The military tail had begun to wag the political dog – and instead of winning people to their cause, whether among the Sinhalese or their own people, the Tigers began to eliminate anyone who stood in their way, be it one of their own dissenters or the Indian prime minister – an act of self-defeat in that it alienated the Tamils of India. Two years later, 1993, they assassinated Sri Lanka’s President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The final self-defeat came in 2004 with the defection of Muralitharan, their military strategist and their second-in-command to the side of the Rajapakse government. And it was the inside information that he and his men provided on guerrilla positions and strategies that helped the government to finally overcome the Tigers. He is today the Chief Minister of the Eastern province and a member of the Rajapakse government and held up as a symbol of the government’s goodwill towards the Tamils, and an indication of its intention to afford them some sort of regional government.
But the President’s own actions since the defeat of the Tigers and, more importantly, the political culture that his government, even more than all the previous governments, has created, belies any such democratic outcome. For what has evolved in sixty years of independence is an ethnocentric Sinhala-Buddhist polity reared on falsified history reinforced by feudal customs and myths, with a voting system that seals the ethnic majority in power for ever – while reducing the party system to a war between dynasties, flanked by monks and militias.
And within that polity the Rajapakse government or, rather cabal (he has three brothers in the cabinet) has instituted a regime of blanket censorship under cover of which it has conducted a ruthless war not just against the equally ruthless Tigers but against harmless Tamil civilians, a “war without witness” someone termed it, while feeding the Sinhalese public with government-manufactured facts and seeing off any journalist who dared to criticise the government. (You will all remember the case of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader, who sent a letter to his friend President Rajapakse, excoriating him for murders of outspoken journalists and predicting his own at the hands of government thugs. And so it came to pass.)
What, in sum, we are faced with in my country today, is a brainwashed people, brought up on lies and myths, their intelligentsia told what to think, their journalists forbidden to speak the truth on pain of death, the militarising of civil society and the silencing of all opposition. A nation bound together by the effete ties of language, race and religion has arrived at the cross-roads between parliamentary dictatorship and fascism.
It is for the Sinhalese people I fear now – for if they come for me in the morning, they’ll come for you that night.’
Download a copy of A. Sivanandan’s article: ‘Sri Lanka: racism and the politics of underdevelopment’ (pdf file, 2mb) Race & Class, Vol. 26, No. 1, (1984)
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.