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Britain’s departure from colonial attitudes must also extend to the Tamil question

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Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt shooting a video for the British mission in Colombo earlier this year, endorsing the Sinhala regime whilst standing on the Mullivaikkal beach, the site of the Sinhala military’s slaughter of at least 40,000 Tamils in the final stages of the war in April/ May 2009. (Picture: British High Commission in Sri Lanka)

William Hague’s announcement this week acknowledging responsibility and expressing regret for the crimes committed by British colonial authorities in Kenya against the Mau Mau rebellion is yet another instance of the certainties that legitimised the British Empire being overturned. For several decades after decolonisation, the argument that the Empire was an untarnished moral good that universally brought civilisation and progress to the natives was largely unchallenged in mainstream British culture. In subsequent decades, however, revisionist history and the changing power dynamics of the world have worked to unsettle this view and led to public acknowledgements of past crimes. Earlier this year, for example, while on an official visit to India, Prime Minister Cameron described the massacre of Indian civilians by colonial state officials at Jallainwallah Bagh in 1919, one of the triggers of the pan Indian Non-Cooperation movement, as ‘deeply shameful.’

These almost apologies can be easily dismissed as purely symbolic and prompted more by necessity than genuine reflection and introspection. However, this largely misses the point, as the motivations for public gestures of regret are less significant than the fact that British officials feel compelled to make them. In short, they are significant because they signal a growing awareness amongst policy makers and politicians that the easy assumptions of colonial superiority and benevolence that for decades shaped British policy towards former imperial possessions and subjects can no longer be used to mask the violence, racial hierarchies and extraction of empire.

The retreat from empire has not, however, been consistent or even. This is glaringly evident when it comes to British policy on the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka. On this issue it seems that the British remain resolutely wedded to the colonial past, continuing a pattern of consistently backing Sinhala majoritarian ethnocracy that was first established in the early 1930s. Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to attend the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo later this year is simply a continuation of this policy. As was Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt’s appalling decision earlier this year to endorse the Sinhala regime whilst standing on the Mullivaikkal beach, the site of the Sinhala military’s slaughter of at least 40,000 Tamils in the final stages of the war in April/ May 2009. Both these decisions express a callous contempt and disregard for Tamils’ collective rights and well-being that first became evident during the late colonial period.

The early decades of the twentieth century saw important challenges to colonial rule across the world. There were serious anti-colonial movements all over Asia. Notably in India, the Congress movement’s mass protests demanding self-rule mobilised India-wide support and garnered international attention. The 1917 Russian Revolution and the increasing global power of the United States also worked to undermine the British and other European empires’ sense of permanence. Repercussions of these international shifts were evident even in Ceylon, where from the 1920’s onwards colonial officials began to initiate limited constitutional moves towards self-government.

The reforms immediately raised the question of the political status of the Tamils. Democratic rule in Sri Lanka meant not only Sinhala dominance but the dominance of the increasingly powerful Sinhala Buddhist movement that sought explicitly to create a Sinhala first state and polity in which the Tamils would have a subordinate political, social and economic position. Despite the very real threats posed by majoritarian ethno-nationalism, and the prescient warnings of several Tamil politicians, British officials from the early 1930’s visibly adopted a policy of backing Sinhala majority rule and more or less explicitly adopted the Sinhala nationalist interpretation of the island as a Sinhala possession. The 1928 Report of the Donoughmore Commission and later the 1945 Report of the Soulbury Commission offer clear statements of British policy during this period.

In the final negotiations over the transfer of power that began in earnest after the end of WWII, British officials chose to deal exclusively with D. S Senanayake, a politician with deep roots in the Sinhala nationalist movement. Senanayake, unlike his Indian counterpart Nehru, was not the leader of a powerful nationalist movement capable of destabilising British rule. Instead his status was mostly an artefact of his connections to British officials who effectively ‘picked’ him as the ‘right pair of hands’ to safeguard British interests on the island. Senanayake made it clear that he would not tolerate negotiations with Tamil political leaders and so the Tamil politician G.G Ponnambalam was pointedly not invited to London to discuss the details of the post-independence constitution. When Ponnambalam made his own way to London anyway he was dismissed with a set of short and perfunctory meetings.

In the post-independence decades, British policy has continued in the same vein and has never sought to challenge or undermine Sinhala domination over the Tamils. This is despite the fact that many of the minor tactical military and commercial agreements made with Senanayake were overturned by subsequent Sinhala nationalist governments. It is of course the Sinhala Buddhist state that bears responsibility for the structural and violent processes of annihilation that have been unleashed against the Tamils since independence. However, Britain remains culpable, not just for the decisions made during the colonial era but for the on-going and unstinting support that Sinhala Buddhism receives from a wide range of British officials and policymakers.

The racialised hierarchies and assumptions that sustained British colonial violence in places like Kenya, India and Malaysia have become increasingly indefensible and undeniable with the shifting dynamics and imperatives of global politics. The violence, racial hierarchy and extraction of the Sinhala Buddhist state, tolerated for decades because of the imperatives of the Cold War and the War on Terror, have become - in the post 2009 era - glaringly indefensible and undeniable. International perceptions of Sri Lanka are visibly shifting. Yet important strands of British policy making on Sri Lanka remain stubbornly wedded to defending the Sinhala Buddhist order and its violent subjugation of the Tamils. Not only is this policy counterproductive and out of step with shifting international realities, it is also morally indefensible and can only be explained as the shameful continuation of the late colonial attitude of contempt and indifference towards the Tamils.

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