Home » News

Why does self determination have to be bought with blood? – Thought Leader

[MISC, Monday, 30 November 2009 13:02 No Comment]

By Niki Moore

The campaign for self-determination for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka should hold lessons for governments the whole world over. The question must be asked: Why self determination always have to be bought with blood?

The three-decade-long civil war in Sri Lanka is over. For most of the world it was a “hidden war” — public reporting concerned almost exclusively suicide bombers attacking tourist enclaves in the island and adjacent countries. The world really only knew about the “terrorist organisation” called the Tamil Tigers. In August this year, though, the Sri Lankan government launched an all-out offensive against the rebel group. When the firing stopped, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabakaran, lay dead. The Tiger had been beheaded.

But the commander of the Sri Lankan army, General Sarath Fonseka recently announced his forced retirement, complaining that his army might have “won the war, but we have not won the peace”.

He was referring to the thousands of ethnic Tamils housed in government camps, the left-overs of the conflict, living in appalling conditions, separated from family and support and victims of army brutality. Forced labour, arbitrary executions, gang rapes, disease and mortality — these are the realities for thousands of Tamils living in Sri Lanka who wanted nothing more than a place to call home.

Now the Tamil diaspora — millions of Sri Lankan Tamils living in countries around the world, are trying to place pressure on the Sri Lankan government to give them exactly that.

The question for many people, though, is: “What is this all about? What were the Tamils fighting for?”

The answer lies in the green and pleasant hills of the island once called Ceylon. It lies off the south-east coast of India, about the size of Ireland, separated from the state of Tamil-Nadu in India by a narrow channel.

The population is divided roughly into three quarters Buddhist Sinhalese and one-quarter Hindu-Tamils. This is the root of the ethnic conflict — a struggle for minority rights.

Both the Tamils and the Sinhalese have in modern times created folk legends that give them first option to the island of Sri Lanka, to justify their conflicting claims. In truth, both of these nations have existed side by side for centuries in peace. It was the advent of colonialism that planted the seeds of the modern civil war.

The colonial era began with the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 16th century. These nations recognised the different ethnic origins of the two nations and ruled them separately. But when Britain took over in 1802, her government introduced administrative conveniences that were disastrous for Sri Lanka.

Firstly, they consolidated the country under a single government, ignoring ethnic differences. Adminstrators introduced the commercialisation of agriculture, migrant labour, title to land, registration of births and deaths, and built churches to introduce Christianity. As the Tamil areas were largely the best regions for tea and rubber plantations, these regions were turned over to agriculture. Economic development took place in the Sinhalese cities. Educated Tamils were forced to leave their lands and seek work in the cities, where they were never assimilated.

Britain administered Sri Lanka along similar semi-autonomous lines to other colonies and allowed a supervised local government. Because of the development of the Sinhalese areas at the expense of the rural Tamil areas, Tamils knew that they would always be disadvantaged as long as they did not enjoy minority rights.

In 1947 Ceylon (as it was then known) was moving towards independence along with India. Tamils, keenly aware of their minority and undeveloped status, tried to counter their numerical and developmental weakness by demanding equal representation in Parliament. Their attempt failed.

In the nationalistic fervour following independence, Sinhalese chauvinism grew. Anti-Tamil feeling became stronger. The Tamils sought to counter discrimination by requesting a federal system so that they would have a degree of autonomy in their own areas. This attempt also failed.

By 1956, Tamils were second-class citizens in their own country. Sinhalese was declared the only official language, thereby disallowing Tamils from holding formal jobs in the state, education or formal economy. Tamils were discriminated against in higher education, by making the entry requirements higher for Tamil-speakers. The anti-Tamil feeling eventually erupted into outright violence and cultural vandalism against Tamils.

The Sinhalese government tried on many occasions to placate Tamil demands, but attempts were usually half-hearted in order to prevent alienating the Sinhalese majority, and every single treaty failed.

In 1972 Buddhism was declared the state religion of Sri Lanka. It was this that finally persuaded the Hindu Tamils that peaceful co-existence was no longer possible. As a final blow, in 1974 the Tamil library in Jaffna — the main repository of Tamil literature and culture, was burned down by Sinhalese soldiers.

In 1976 the Tamil leadership had concluded that only a separate state, as existed before the colonial consolidation, could ensure the survival of the Tamil people. A number of people, deciding that a political process of secession would be too slow, declared an armed struggle.

The real outbreak of the civil war began in 1983 when a group of militants ambushed and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers in Jaffna. The government embarked on a retaliatory campaign of arrests, torture, detentions and executions of suspected Tamil militants. This was the beginning of a mass exodus of Tamils from Sri Lanka to escape persecution. It signalled the rise of the Tamil Tigers.

By the end of 1983 a full-scale civil war was in progress. Peace talks sponsored by the United Nations failed again and again and again. Both sides embarked on campaigns that were almost guaranteed to add fuel to the flames. The Sinhalese government introduced clampdowns and restrictive legislation, the Tamil Tigers introduced suicide bombers, child soldiers and human shields.

A sizeable force of military exiles fled to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and launched attacks from there.

Then came 1987. The Indian government was alarmed by the existence of a secessionist group operating out of India and undertook to assist the Sri Lankan government to eliminate them.

The intervention of India in the civil war in Sri Lanka was the second-most disastrous event in the country’s history. Firstly, India had a socialist economic policy, but Sri Lanka was moving away from socialism and cosying up to the West. The Sri Lankan government was therefore seen as building links with countries hostile to India’s interests — South Africa being one of them. Secondly, India had a number of separatist groups of its own, and did not want to set a dangerous precedent by allowing secession in a closely-neighbouring country. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi persuaded the Tamils to lay down their arms but then — according to Tamil sources — began a purge of Tamil civilians through execution and rape. The Tamils also aver that Ghandi asked his army to assassinate the Tamil leader Prabakaran when he visited India for peace talks. As a result of the apparent betrayal, a Tamil suicide bomber killed Ghandi in 1991.

The civil war had now reached the point of no return. So many atrocities had been perpetrated on both sides that any attempt at reconciliation was impossible. In 1995 the Sri Lankan government declared war on the Tigers, banned all media, restricted humanitarian organisations and imposed punishing sanctions on Tamil areas. It is estimated that 150 000 people died.

The final offensive came in May 2009. Thousands more civilians died. But at the end of the campaign the Sri Lankan government declared victory, releasing pictures of the body of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Other casualties included the leaders of the political wing of the LTTE. The Tigers were headless, and the military phase of the civil war seemed to be over.

But, as former General Fonseka said, the peace is far from won. Nearly 300 000 civilians who escaped the fighting — many wounded, malnourished and traumatised — are now held in government-run internment camps with inadequate food and water. The displaced are denied the right to live with relatives or host families and UN agencies and humanitarian organisations have not been granted full and unimpeded access to the camps and are thus unable to deliver adequate supplies and services. There are also serious concerns about the protection of residents from threats from government-backed Tamil paramilitaries, government security forces, and remaining LTTE cadres within the camps. Government officials have sent conflicting signals on how long people will be forced to remain within the camps, with estimates ranging from six months to three years.

The Sri Lankan government is also faced with the decades-old challenge of developing a set of political reforms able to address the grievances of Tamils and other minorities while reassuring the Sinhalese. A central test of the government’s commitment to finding a lasting and just peace will be its willingness to implement provisions in the existing Constitution granting powers to provincial councils. The government may have to go further and consider additional legal changes likely to be necessary to satisfy representatives of Tamils, Muslims and other minorities.

In conclusion, the central issue of the civil war is the issue of separatism. All countries that have been colonised agree vehemently that colonialism created divisions that caused unlimited hardship and dislocation.

Why is it unthinkable, then, to undo these arbitrary borders? Why is separatism an issue that draws a knee-jerk denial from governments? Why is it so unthinkable that an ethnic group would want to live among their own kind, worship their own god, speak their own language and honour their own heroes? Africa is the best (or worst) example of this: tribes were cut in half or summarily thrown together by a group of politicians in Europe who drew lines on a map. Toxic though these divisions were, no one appears in the least interested in re-drawing borders despite the number of tribal groups who have applied for autonomy.

Giving the Tamils a homeland which has existed for thousands of years with a colonial hiccup of a little over a century would cost the Buddhist Sri Lankan government nothing, but would allow peace to a nation that has wanted little else. This argument can be extrapolated to Ireland, Spain, Africa, Tibet, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

[Full Coverage]

(For updates you can share with your friends, follow TNN on Facebook, Twitter and Google+)

Comments are closed.