Thursday, 9 April 2009

The oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka – where are the lion hearts?

On April 7 2009 UK residents of Tamil origin with relatives in Sri Lanka demonstrated in London. They called for intervention to stop Sri Lanka’s civil war, which has recently escalated. Sri Lankan Tamils have been fighting the majority Sinhalese for fair and equal treatment for almost 100 years.(1) The latest crisis may see the destruction of their primary fighting force, the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE).

I first became aware of the crisis in Sri Lanka in 1991, when India’s then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in protest against the presence of Indian peacekeeping forces.

Mr Gandhi was giving a speech in Sriperumbudur, around 30 miles from Madras (now Chennai) where I was living. The bomber was a woman. I remember the newspaper and magazine photographs, and the extensive television coverage that followed; the ghastly pictures of bloody dismembered limbs and the dishevelled, deserted podium.

The April 7 demonstration was held by supporters of the LTTE - a terror group proscribed under the UK’s 2000 Terror Act.(2) Many red flags baring the roaring tiger insignia of the LTTE were flown, and one arrest for the same was made under the anti-terror law.

In July 2008, a different group, the Sri Lankans Against Terrorism (SLAT UK) demonstrated in front of No 10 Downing Street to protest against the government’s protection of ministers Keith Vaz and Virendra Sharma who, it claimed, were supporting the LTTE. One of the protesters’ banners read: “LTTE is not sole rep of Tamils”.(3)

Whether the LTTE is right or wrong in its approach to justice, an immediate intervention to abate the crisis is required.

The most recent tragedy is that thousands of Tamils are fatally trapped in the current war zone (Kilinochchi, a northern town and the administrative head quarters of the LTTE). They are being killed, tortured, losing their homes and being separated from their families.

Ethnic struggle
The history of the ethnic struggle between the minority Hindu Tamils and Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority is peppered with failed ceasefires, failed peace talks, army massacres and suicide bombings.

The tensions stem from the fact that the Tamils used to be favoured by the British when the latter ruled the island. So, when the country gained independence from Britain in 1949, the Sinhalese majority marginalised the Tamils.(1)

Some of the discriminatory measures included refusing to recognise Tamil as a national language, setting up discriminatory laws against Tamils, Tamil plantation workers getting disenfranchised and being refused citizenship, and in 1972 Buddhism was made the national religion (most Tamils are Hindu).(1)

The Tamil people first responded by non-violent resistance in the Gandhian tradition, but the government repressed these peaceful protests, and violence against Tamil activists increased. Soon, a demand arose from the Tamil population for an independent state. The first party to drive this idea forward was the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). However, its resolutions gradually became compromised and it lost much of its popular support.(4)

It took a group of angry young Tamils to form the LTTE in 1976. Moved to action by the economic marginalization caused by negative discrimination against them in the workplace and in higher education, (4) they did what all young people do – they imitated the nature of the authority that had power over them. Mirroring the government’s approach, they returned violence for violence, deploying relentless violent attacks, including suicide bombings and air raids.(5)

What comes after the LTTE?
The Sri Lankan government believes that the recent atrocities in Kilinochchi are the LTTE’s last stand and that the LTTE is nearly destroyed.

It is a very big question as to whether or not it would be a good thing for the LTTE to be defeated, given the history of discrimination and intolerance the Tamils have suffered at the hands of the authorities. (6)

However, what is clear is that hundreds of people on both sides of the divide are dying violently, their children are being brought up in a situation that is likely to brutalise them, and the Tamils say they are now facing nothing less than genocide.

The meaning of the word Sinhalese is “perfect lion people” (Sinha = lion; Hela = pristine) and originates from stories surrounding the founder of the Sinhalese people, Prince Vijaya.

So isn’t it high time the Sri Lankan government came to its senses and showed some lionhearted leadership? Because right now, the country is in peril and has been dubbed a “failed state”.(7)

But the leaders on both sides, Sinhalese and Tamil, have the highest humanitarian responsibility to procrastinate no longer. They must take the road of political discussion and diplomacy, and in this they must transcend petty ethnic egoism in order to achieve success. This alone can take Sri Lanka – the “Sacred Island” - into a dignified, unified and prosperous future.

1) See “Timeline: Sri Lanka, a chronology of key events”, BBC online
2) The LTTE is proscribed by around 32 countries worldwide
3) “Sri Lankan Against Terrorism reprimanded two Labour MPs for participating in the LTTE sponsored event”,
4) “Self-determination: a Ceylon Tamil perspective”, Conciliation Resources
5) The LTTE offensive includes what it called its first, second and third “Eelam wars”. Among their numerous assaults are included the assassination or injuring of several state leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi and President Kumaratunga; assaults on air and navy bases; and the bombing and destruction in 2001 of nearly half the country’s Sri Lankan Airlines fleet in an attack on Colombo international airport.
6) After writing this piece, I came across an interesting analysis of the crisis by Arundhati Roy on April 3:
7) Wikipedia: “Sri Lanka was considered one of the "world's most politically unstable countries" by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank in 2004. The Economist labels Sri Lanka a "flawed democracy" in its 2006 rankings (ranking 57 and positioned among 54 other flawed ranked ones), and Foreign Policy ranks Sri Lanka 25th (Alert Category) in its Failed States Index for 2007. However, Sri Lanka, according to the US State Department in 2005, was classified a "stable democracy" amidst a ceasefire period of the long running civil war.”


  1. Hi Girija

    I would definitely call for a UN intervention, to save thousands of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. I agree with you that a dialogue is the only long term solution for this war going on for the past 25 years, but again a question arises in our minds: is it too late...?


  2. Hi Rishee,

    Thanks for your comment.

    In answer to you: I don't like to think that it is ever too late - not while there are still men standing. In fact now may be a perfect opportunity to do the right thing.

    Arundhati Roy says in her article that coverage of the problems in SL by the media has been minimal. As far as I am aware, that is the case in the UK as well. But the demonstration in April hit our headlines, so maybe this is the beginning of the end i.e. the people's strength has gained momentum and now may just mark the tipping point. This is my sincerest hope, anyway.

  3. You seem to have written the issue with a bias towards the LTTE. Back when Rajiv Gandhi was the Indian Prime Minister, The Sri Lankan Tamils were close to getting their rights and integrity they had been denied over the years. But they went ahead and blew it all. This just shows that they are nothing short of terrorist and not liberators.
    Also, the LTTE forced the entire Muslim population to flee the LTTE controlled regions with an impossible deadline of 48 hours. Is this what one terms liberation?
    The Sri Lankan government too should let air into their own brains.
    I am of the opinion that if it all ends now, it will get over for once and all. That it shouldn't happen again would be the responsibility of the SL govt., so would be the issue of refugees in many parts of the world.

  4. Hi Vivek,

    Thanks for your great insights. I was trying to be balanced in the article and not biased towards the LTTE, because, as you pointed out, the Muslim event says a lot about the kind of organisation the LTTE is. The article calls on the SL government and the LTTE to be lionhearted and to step up, get over their petty ethnic hatred.

    Re the LTTE: who else is fighting for the Tamil population? Who else has the power to bring this situation to the world's eyes and ears?

    My concern is that the situation be actively addressed. Oppression is not something that people can live with - they simply die by it. And that is why violence is usually seen as the only option. What is unfortunate (to understate it) is that those with fight power often have a lot of bad about them too. They end up being as bad as those they resist. I realise this..


  5. Hi Girija

    Violence in any form cannot be justified. By doing so, innocent civilians have to bear the brunt of the same.

    I recently got a forwarded mail which shows explicit and ghastly pictures of innocent children/adults killed in the recent offensive. One has to see those pictures to relate to the way they have been killed. Definitely, a big “no” for the faint hearted ones..

    This has to stop and, as suggested in the earlier reply, peaceful negotiations are the only long term solution for this problem


  6. Hi Rishee,

    I too am against violence, but oppression is a violence and it gives birth to violence in the form of war. While one exists, the other is likely to exist.
    You may point to the freeing of India from British rule as an example of how freedom was achieved through peaceful means. But as Sri Aurobindo (once the revolutionary politician Aurobindo Ghose) has pointed out in his political writings - the extreme violence that followed Independence suggested the natural release of pent up hatred. This is why Sri Aurobindo as a politician supported a strong-arm rejection of British power over Gandhi's peaceful method. He believed that a more forceful method of gaining freedom would not have led to the atrocities that were committed between Hindus and Muslims.
    To me, this does seem a logical analysis of the facts.
    We have not yet solved the problem of conflict either at a microcosmic or macrocosmic level. People are working on it in a number of ways. For example Auroville in Tamil Nadu is a whole society dedicated to research into human unity, including how to make human conflict a thing of the past.

  7. Hi Girija

    That is precisely why a UN intervention is required at this stage. For unknown reasons, UN has been silent about this issue in the recent past.

    Toady I saw in a local newspaper that SL govt has stripped Norway from the mediator’s role in this issue.

    My only concern is loss of innocent lives in this three-decade long conflict

    As far as India’s independence is concerned, the violence that erupted after independence was because of selfish and vested interests of few individuals, as far as my knowledge goes.

    Having said that, times have changed. The age of cold war is over. All countries are moving in the direction of peace and a better world order and hence, all world leaders should address this issue on a war-footing basis and the end the same amicably


  8. Though your solution is the best available option, at this point in time, reason has fled from the horizon and passion/emotion has taken its place.

    Mistakes have been made on both sides here - the needless military violence by the SLA and the unforgivable method of ticking away people by the human bomb.

    I don't know if a long-term solution can be obtained, but immediately we need the war to stop and later, need reason to seep in.

  9. Now that many stranded tamils have been rescued, hopefully we can heave a sigh of releif. The LTTE acted as classic cowards by hiding behind these innocents and shelling them when they tried to escape to freedom.
    Hopefully it's all over.

  10. Girija,
    In a retrospect, LTTE has swallowed all the other like minded liberation groups (like minded or not) through brutal force. This shows their thirst for power. If a tamil nation is formed under LTTE, it is pretty obvious that these guys will rule it according to their whims and fancies.
    Even today, LTTE uses the tamil people as human walls against the shells and bombs of SL army.

    I would prefer a tamil nation only after ostracizing LTTE.

  11. Dear Anonymous Mysterion,
    Why Tamil nation? The Tamil culture is a part of the huge and diverse Indian civilisation. When all other language groups are residing in harmony and peace with the rest of the country (tough not always) why talk about a 'Tamil nation'. We were once divided and ruled over for a hundred and fifty years on paper. Do you want that again?
    The Tamil Eelam thus is appropriate only when it is a part of a major culture to which it generously donates in this case it is India or Srilanks or even Malaysia and Singapore!

  12. LTTE, what ever reason the organization was formed, I don’t think they were in the right path. During the last stage of war, they were using the same Tamil people, whom LTTE is/was trying to protect, as a human shield , and the Lankan army had no choice, but to run over those unarmed people. That can’t be called as genocide, it was the need of the hour (when you look thru the eyes of Lankan army), which LTTE could have avoided. In that way, civilian people were protecting armed LTTE soldiers - that is an irony.

    War is evil. It can see only victory, nothing else. Who ever is there blocking you from victory, remove them, that is the basics of any war, that is why it is evil. There is NO WAY we can justify Lankan army or LTTE. Lankn Govt could have resolved it, and could have made Lanka a better place, by participating Tamil people also in the process of nation building. LTTE too could have avoided all these, if they selected a better path.

    Anyway, no point in talking about the spilled milk. I think this is the best chance for both the parties to resolve the issue. Other countries should stay away-since they have their own interests. Some want to sell arms, some wants to have military presence in Lanka, some thinks if Lanka is calm, it is a threat to them. Let all these people stay away. Also, splitting a country is not a bright idea, India is still paying for that.

    Hope the Lankan Govt and Tamil people will be able to understand these wolves, and start building a new nation.

  13. Hi Girija...

    I am Anjali...

    Nice Analysis of the War between Srilankan Army and a revolutionary group from Tamil Migrators in srilanka (LTTE). I think iam just 6 sitting in the lap of my father when i saw the paper which my father was eargely n with a little tears in his eyes reading the newspaper.
    I dont know what happen at that time, even iam not in a stage to understand what is the world revolution...i was just told by my father that god took Rajiv with him. I havent see the pisctures too that it was so scared that all the parts of the body was scattred like anything...As times passes i understood that what is the Word Revoultion and why it came in srilanka and Who is Tamil Tiger Prabhakaran. It just inspired me when i heard about that those people are fighting for their RIGHTS which every deserves "Right to Live",Identity
    and Independance,besides i lost impression on them as they did a BIG Mistake of Killing Mr.Rajiv Gandhi, who was quoted by Dr. Abdul Kalam that he is the initiator of the Technology development in india and we miss him a lot...He promised to the LTTE that he will resolved the problems if they dont do any violence,immedaitely LTTE killed premadasa,and no other choice for him left by LTTE that to send Peace force to supress them( in this perspective we have to take the exapmle of Kashmir,where we are facing the similar issue with the rebels over there and we are not ready to accept their demands). So many Peace Talks where 80% of their deamands were about to accept by the srilankan government, Prabhakaran whose ideology always want bloodshed( So many of his own Friends Cum Chief Officers in his three Wings Left him because of this)didn't accept. If he really a wellwisher of Tamilians in Srilanka he could have accpeted the government proposal, and he could have became one Nelson Mandella,he rejected with out second thought,what happend now the Military of srilankan declared war and
    Rajapakshe( Note: LTTE gave a call to the Tamil people not to participate in General Elections and vote,Rajapakshe is not in the race at that time but majority of tamil voters didnt vote so his party won and he became pres,self mistake of LTTE), every where bloodshed,even they didnt allow redcross r anyother internationsl reportes and voluteers to give their service,military hunted all the people with mercy.If u see the photos of Tamil
    pregnent lady who was shooted and the baby come out of her woob...God where we are living what is this...I couldnt see the photos graphs.Thousands of LTTE people commit suicide bcause if they were caught they know very well how they will be tread,its just like a burriel ground every where...
    Atlast Jafhna the LTTE capital and the three wings of their military,navy,airforce commanders everyone died,prabhakaran son antony and atlast the tiger of the decade Prabhakaran died horriblly killed by the military...Whos now suffering the innocent Tamil people who are there with getting proper food,shelter and now atleast indian government should take initiatives so that srilankan government should provide facitities for them...Peace should retain back...I neither support the Srilankans not Tamilians r anyother,we are Human beings we should not forget Humanity that should be our priority religion,region,language everything is secondary....Anyways ur article made me so emotional....

    Thanks & Regards