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60 Years of Oppression

Sri Lanka marked sixty years of independence from Britain this week. As such, February 4th was truly representative of this ethnocracy's sordid state of affairs. The highlight of the 'multi-ethnic' country's anniversary ceremonies was a parade by the all-Sinhala military which President Mahinda Rajapakse and his commanders reviewed amidst tight security. Elsewhere, the island was wracked by armed conflict, extra-judicial violence and humanitarian suffering. Quite appropriately, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) wasn't even invited to the state celebrations. The main opposition Sinhala parties refused to attend, though this has more to do with their envy of President Rajapakse's near messianic standing amongst the majority community than the protests of poor governance they cited. The main Muslim party, the SLMC, also stayed away: their community is now bearing the crushing deprivations of majoritarianism.

Sri Lanka's quagmire has been aptly described as 'a crisis of the state.' But what is not easily accepted by the international community, in its impatience to bring peace to the island, is that this crisis is the cause and not the consequence of three decades of conflict. Today's abysmal state of affairs is merely an intensification of chauvinist dynamics that, having developed beneath the surface before the colonial handover, erupted into the open soon after the British left. This is not to blame 'ancient hatreds' but to argue that Britain's concentration of power in Sinhala hands enabled a chauvinist project to masquerade as nation-building.

In discussing this, we quote here, with utmost respect, from the work of numerous scholars, whose disparate writings over the years on Sri Lanka's crisis, have largely been ignored in the ahistoric, formulaic and ultimately futile international efforts to re-impose, as 'peace', Sinhala domination of the island and the Tamils.

To begin with, the state is a colonial construct: whilst there is scholarly disagreement as to pre-colonial history, the imposition of a single administrative structure for the entire island was incontestably a British colonial decision, one which came after centuries of incremental (Portuguese, Dutch and British) conquests of its parts. Nonetheless, at independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, with high human development indicators and well-developed infrastructure, was expected - by the colonial power - to become a model democracy. Sri Lanka instead descended into ethnic strife, crisis and vicious conflict.
As such, today's abysmal state of affairs is merely an intensification of chauvinist dynamics that, having developed beneath the surface during colonial handover, erupted into the open soon after the British left. Which is why in 1956, Sinhala leaders were readily able to seek election by appealing to Sinhala chauvinist sentiment. What is important about the introduction of 'Sinhala Only' in 1956 is not its discriminatory effect, but how it was emblematic of the mindset of the Sinhala majority, exemplified by the popular support it enjoyed.

It is noteworthy that it was democratic logic of the 'will of the majority' that legitimised this and subsequent acts of discrimination. The justification was, as the chauvinists still insist, the Tamils were 'privileged' by the colonial power - though it is not clear why the British should have loved us more than the Sinhalese. Meanwhile it is quietly forgotten that the missionary schools (which turned out the English-speaking natives for the colonial administration) were readily accepted in the Tamil areas and resisted in the Sinhala south.

It is in the first three decades of Sinhala majoritarian rule, rather than in the past thirty years of armed conflict, that the present-day impediments to building a 'liberal peace' in Sri Lanka became entrenched. Even by the mid seventies, before the armed conflict had begun, Sri Lanka 'had regressed to an illiberal, ethnocentric regime bent on Sinhala superordination and Tamil subjugation.' A policy of recruiting only Sinhalese into the military was introduced in 1962, the beginning of today's ethnically pure army. And it was state-sponsored Sinhala colonisation that led Tamils to fear 'they may become a minority in their own provinces.' That the demographic dilution of Tamil-majority areas 'would render any devolution of powers as a solution to the ethnic conflict less effective' was not lost on the Tamils, even as they agitated, peacefully, for an end to the discrimination. This is why the slogan of 'traditional homelands,' is first and foremost a political claim meant to ensure the security of the Tamils and is integrally linked to our demands for autonomy and independence.

The passing of the republican constitution in 1972- apart from changing the name from 'Ceylon' to the Sinhala-preferred 'Sri Lanka' - removed the safeguards of the previous British- supplied constitution, gave a pre-eminent position to Buddhism, in addition to the Sinhala language, and most importantly, concentrated power further in the Sinhala-dominated legislature. As such, amidst contemporary international insistence that Tamil demands must be pursued through democratic mechanisms, it should be remembered that it was the failure of democratic processes, for reasons that have become more entrenched today, that both the demand for independence and later armed conflict emerged.
Thus, while antagonistic ethnic mobilization was not an inevitable outcome after 1948, 'what ultimately transpired went beyond what any self-respecting minority would tolerate.' Moreover, the period since independence has been 'punctuated by bouts of annihilatory violence directed against the Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983' in which thousands of Tamils, including women and children were massacred, Tamil property was destroyed, and hundreds of thousands made refugees.' These periodic explosions of violence against Tamils represent efforts to put them back in their places on grounds they have become too assertive and need to be taught a lesson, as President J. R. Jayawardene bluntly stated in 1983.

It is the insistent ignoring of this post-colonial history that has resulted in the abject failure of international efforts to encourage, foster and ultimately impose a 'solution' on Sri Lanka. 'Decades of potent socialization through familial, religious, educational, and media practices have resulted in a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist hegemony that spans the political, socio-economic and cultural landscape of Sri Lanka.'
However, the international community continues to insist on abstract and manifestly untenable characterizations of the now intractable conflict. Rather than recognize the resilience of entrenched racism within the centralized and fortified Sri Lanka state, sporadic and laughable efforts to knit 'ethnic harmony' amongst people in parts of the island are combined with much pontification on the appropriateness or not of various constitutional models and, more importantly, 'what the extremist Tamil Tigers will settle for.'
As for the Tamils, our ambitions, like tho-se of any decent people are to live free and peacefully with our neighbours. We seek not to restore some ancient glory or fulfil some manifest destiny. We seek not the subjugation of another people or assertion of any racial supremacy. Our demand for the independent state of Eelam is not a quest for 'ethnic purity' but for the irrevocable and irreducible est-ablishment of our security and dignity. After 60 years of unending oppression and violent repression, we are convinced more than ever of this truth. And, whatever suffering the Sinhala state and its international allies inflict on us, we are not going to give up now.