Colombo, Identity, Jaffna, Language, Peace and Conflict

“Oya Sinhalade? Demalade?” – Questioning a question in post-war Sri Lanka

“Oya Sinhalade? Demalade?”

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had that question asked from me over the years. Ironically enough, in these days of ‘peace’ I’ve had it asked of me more and more frequently. Firstly in Colombo and now in Jaffna too. Jaffna – a town where 99% of the resident community is Tamil, the question is still asked. But why? What can one possibly gauge/assess by the response to that response? If both Sinhalese and Tamils are meted out the same treatment at a check point (or anywhere else this question is asked) what possible need is there to ask this question, unless our post-war land of ‘no minorities’ is a complete and utter falsehood?

A cynic you say? Making a mountain out of a mole hill? Alright. If that be the case, can anyone answer why this question is still asked of us? Nobody I’ve spoken to, to date, has been able to give a meaningful response. If not to discriminate, then what? Let’s assume military personnel have been instructed to ask this question of every single person that passes their checkpoint, as a matter of protocol. Could it possibly be for the sake of curiosity perhaps? Or perhaps the Military and the Government are running a secret survey as to how many Sinhalese and how many Tamils pass by a certain area, on a daily basis. Then what becomes of the Muslims and Burghers? Or do they not fall into such surveys?

Let’s take a quick inward glance, shall we? How many times have we gone to a check point, been asked this question and quite gleefully responded “api Sinhala” even when we’ve had Tamil friends or family in the vehicle, purely for convenience sake? At time, our Tamil friends may have encouraged us to do this too, to substantially reduce the hassle of dealing with security personnel, but this alone says much doesn’t it?

I was travelling to Keerimalai a few days back with a Tamil friend who was going to show me around, when we were stopped at a check point just outside the HSZ. I stayed silent until she nudged me and whispered “speak to them in Sinhala!” Even as I spoke to them, I felt sick in my gut at the fact that my friend who was showing me around ‘her’ hometown, somehow felt it would be ‘safer’ and ‘hassle-free’ if I spoke in Sinhala to get through the formalities. If by some chance we’ve not realized it as yet, it’s best we know now that by taking the more ‘convenient’ route, we’ve also, inadvertently, encouraged and endorsed this culture of discrimination, simply by way of acknowledging it to be the norm.

A Tamil friend of mine, who obviously speaks Sinhala quite convincingly, was stopped at a check point without his ID once. Having explained that he’d accidentally left it at home, he’d been told, “ape ekkenek ne malli, ithin kamak neha. Habai ena para ID eka gedara thiyala enna epa harida malli?” (Because you’re one of us it’s okay this time, but don’t leave it at home and come next time okay?) My friend for obvious reasons didn’t try to clarify his ethnicity. He’d simply nodded and walked off. But, how does this sort of action translate to a citizen who is not ‘ape ekkenek’? It’s been taken for granted now that Tamils are for the most part guilty until proven innocent. We’ve all accepted it, both Sinhalese and Tamils alike, by our unquestioning acceptance of this exceptional culture. A Tamil not speaking out against this sort of discrimination is justifiable. What excuse do the rest of us have?

Another, bolder Tamil friend of mine from an urban background, who also speaks Sinhala fluently, usually responds to this question saying “I’m Sri Lankan” followed by an innocent smile. How many other Tamils would risk doing that though?

And is that the ideal response to this question or should it not be asked at all?

  • An annoying thing that only the Army personnel ask at the checkpoints when they see the address on my father’s NIC (which is given as Jaffna even though he’s been living hear for nearly 7 years now) is where he’s living. When he says Colombo, the next thing they ask is why he hasn’t changed his address?

    Pray, why should he change his address? He doesn’t plan to stay here forever, so why should he do that?

    Besides, when considering the fact that most of these Army personnel themselves are not from Colombo, what right do they have to ask my father why he hasn’t changed his address? Have they done it themselves?

    Funnily enough, policemen never ask my dad this question. They just ask him where he’s living here. That’s all. They are very polite, unlike the Army personnel, who rarely give any respect to elder citizens.

    However, even funny is the fact that the Army personnel who were based in Jaffna and now in Colombo are very polite and talkative. They tell my father about where they were deployed before, and the first thing that they say is “The people there are so nice and kind”.

    These Army personnel seem to be more humble than the ones based in Colombo, who think that they are big shots just because they are deployed in the capital of SL!

  • Sinhala_Voice

    Marisa,

    This is quite common practice in Western , Liberal , Democractic , Secular countries as well. The difference is they don’t really have to ask. Because their systems are advance enough to know certain information without asking.

    Racial , Ethnic profiling is quite common in conflict situation. And in places where there have been conflicts or there would be conflicts.

    For example: ALL Pakistani visitors have to report to the nearest ploice station when they are in India.

    The asking of ones ethnicity is fine as long as the treatment they receive is the same for whatever that they have done. Eg: The treatment for concealing a weapon should be the same for whether they are Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim, Burgher, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or No World view/religion groups.

    The FACT is that person concealed a weapon.

    A better practice would be to use the National ID card and have the national ID card printed in ALL 3 Languages of use in Sri Lanka and have it updated every 5 years.

    What you raise is a simple matter of using politically correct methods to secure the country.

    Please also remember it was only less than a year ago that the security personnel has to worry about whether a person was a suicide bomber or not. One basic, effective method that one used was their ethnic identity.

    There have not being many Sinhala suicide bombers in the last 30 years of conflict —> Correct. So these procedures needs changing for policing and secuirty in PEACEFUL times (As now)…..I am sure they will change as the situation de-escalates itself.

    I would be happy if there is a security threat they search each and everyone. Because, not searching or treating Sinhalese differently would make it a loop hole the aggressor would use to by pass the system. So ALL needs to be searched and identity verified. I would not advice anyone to NOT search because one is a Sinhala speaker. Your own example shows that there are Tamils who are good Sinhala speakers. So screening Tamils by their inability to speak SInhala is not a good test method.

    It is also our responsiblity to cooperate with the defence personnel and do what is required by them within the law. Somebody has to do that job.

  • Saumya

    it’s not about cooperating with the defence personnel and interfering with their job…it’s about the discrimination you get AFTER you answer the question. everyone discriminates in Sri Lanka. no one can deny that. im not trying to be negative but with the attitudes of our people, i really don’t see Sri Lanka becoming “ONE” anywhere in the near future. it’s a lot to do with how our so called “history” has been presented to us. the Sinhalese have been TAUGHT to see the Tamils as the “invader”, the “enemy” from day one. we have carried a false pride for too long and we are too set in our ways of thinking. anything contradicting those beliefs will be “destroyed”.

  • Marisa de Silva

    @ Sinhala_Voice
    “One basic, effective method that one used was their ethnic identity.”
    How was this an effective method? You don’t need to ask someone their ethnicity, when you can, and most often do, check the ID. Asking the question defeats the point of checking the ID doesn’t it? The question is redundant and only asked as a result of an “unquestioning adherence” to orders given from above. That’s it.

    There have not being many Sinhala suicide bombers in the last 30 years of conflict —> Correct. So these procedures needs changing for policing and secuirty in PEACEFUL times (As now)…..I am sure they will change as the situation de-escalates itself.

    “I would be happy if there is a security threat they search each and everyone. Because, not searching or treating Sinhalese differently would make it a loop hole the aggressor would use to by pass the system.”

    Are you thus implying that all Tamils are potential “aggressors”?

    “So ALL needs to be searched and identity verified. I would not advice anyone to NOT search because one is a Sinhala speaker. Your own example shows that there are Tamils who are good Sinhala speakers. So screening Tamils by their inability to speak SInhala is not a good test method.”

    So you endorse the screening of Tamils and even go as far as to suggest that screening via their fluency in Sinhala is “ineffective!” Wow, the Govt “brain washing” mechanism would really be proud of you!

    “It is also our responsiblity to cooperate with the defence personnel and do what is required by them within the law. Somebody has to do that job.”

    I agree, someone’s got to do the job, but that doesn’t essentially always justify how the “job” is done. “Cooperating” with the military personnel doesn’t mean, accepting everything they do, or are made to do, for the sake of maintaining the peace. And as you quite rightly put, we should cooperate with them as they do whatever is required of them “within the law.” The last I checked, discriminating people based on their ethnicity or anything else, for that matter, did not fall “within the law.”

  • very thought provoking peace of article. very hard to change the mental state of the majority community, suddenly.

  • tis-a-small-world

    Dear Marisa,
    Inquiring the ethnicity (whether you are a Tamil or a Sinhala) is a common practice here in Sri Lanka. I can site various reasons why Sri Lankans ask that question. one is for curiosity, when that particular person is new or a stranger. another reason is to start a conversation with that person (Not everyone in Sri Lanka are aware on what they should say to start a conversation)
    In that sense they were not asked with the intension of discriminating them. this is quite normal in Sri Lanka and other countries.
    However I do not agree with the way the writer’s Tamil Friend was treated at a check point, when he was referred as “Ape Kenek” because he spoke Tamil.

  • Sam

    What you have mentioned may happen and it would be difficult to expect that suspicion that was built over decades will go away immediately.

    Since been bitten so many times, often with catastrophic consequences, it is not reasonable to expect the Sri Lankan military to change this within a year of the conflict ending. How many times have we seen the terrorist or the suicide bomber emerging through a person trusted by the victim. The LTTE exploited the trust to the maximum and that suspicion grew to an extent where every Tamil speaking person was a potential suspect. Such a deep rooted mind-set which developed through years of conflict will not fade away in a flash and it is futile to expect that it will.

    For example, take post 9/11, how much suspicion, mistrust and discrimination was directed towards the Muslim communities across US and Europe. This was after one incident – all Muslims were looked at as terrorists, just after one incident. Isn’t it a credit for Sri Lankans that except for the mistakes of 1983 – which is a shameful event in our history, the country remained tolerant towards the Tamil speaking community even with provocation on a colossal scale by the LTTE (Pettah bomb, Central Bank attack, Galadari bombing, Dalada maligawa, numerous bus bombs, train bombs, killing of Presidents, ministers, clergy etc). Isn’t it admirable the majority tolerated all these while still accepting the Tamil speaking minority as part of this country. I am not being racist but this is what the LTTE kept trying to do, incite the majority against the minority – but the Tamil speaking community was able to live in any part of the country – Colombo, Gall, Ratnapura, Kandy, Badulla or anywhere for that matter.

    The easiest way at a checkpoint is to check the nationality of an individual and then investigate further if that person is suspicious. This is not ethical or right, but it has been the effective and practical thing to do. It has and is been done in the Western countries too and they justify it. I am not justifying this, but it is an accepted fact that it happens due to the threats we had. Given time, I am sure this will improve.

    Any multi-ethnic country have some level of discrimination. It is not a perfect ideal world that we live in. There is no country in the World that every community is treated equally and at the same level. In Malaysia, the Tamil community cannot even apply for some category of jobs because they are Tamil – but they accept and live with that. It would be the same in many other countries as well.

    It is a credit to the security forces that they have improved on the way they treat or address people at a checkpoint. They used to be very rude, arrogant and aggressive towards anyone they stop at a checkpoint, regardless of their race. However, they have improved a lot on their communication and most are very polite today. One Policeman even went to the extent of apologizing for stopping and checking my car, which wouldn’t have been heard of 10 years ago.

    I know there are shortcomings and they have a long way to go in terms of improving their public relations, but we should give them credit for coming this far. I’m sure given peace a chance for a while we would be able to get there. I hope too that there will be recruits from the Tamil community into the armed forces which will go a long way in the reconciliation process. The communication and association between the communities that is happening now, would go a long way in the healing process. The trust that was dented need to be built again. It will be a slow process, but it’s happening.

    So let’s give peace a chance and look at things positively rather than finding fault at every little thing. After all no one is perfect, we all can improve.

  • Do you realise that there is a permanent (not temporary) gulf between the Sinhala nation and Tamil nation in the island, convincing that Two state solution is the only answer for the problem?

  • G

    Marisa- well I do not agree with what your saying.. I don’t think that discriminating is right but you do have to understand that this country is jus coming out of a thirty year war .. Unfortunatly most of the suicide bombers were dressed as normal tamil civilians. We are quick to shout discrimination but when in countries like UK USA you are taken for random checking but conviently it is the muslim looking or brown skined people who are always picked randomly.. Racial profiling is a method used to be efficient and effective after all when the bombs of terrorist went off there was no discrimination to who ends up dead… We do forget in all our cry for justice forget to look around and see if there is so much of deep routed discrimination that there how are Tamil people in Colombo operate their business , hold high positions in companies ect… Let these poor soldiers do their job there r worse things happening in Sri Lanka than some poor boy who is baking in the sun asking if your tamil or sinhala

  • Lalani

    It is high time that we taught our children that they are Sri Lankans. When people ask me that’s my answer. It is nausiating to hear that question over and over again.

  • Henry

    Have you been to Canada? If you speak French in quebec your chances of getting a government job is much higher than if you speak only English, never mind going through customs or any other provincial agency without getting harassed. What do you call that? They say in Quebec “reasonable accommodation,” and Canada is a five Star democracy. So, go around the world and then complaint about the situation in Sri Lanka. If you are a Muslim woman wearing a traditional dress, according to latest addition to reasonable accommodation policy, you cannot receive government services. These real facts for you.

  • Sidath B

    Dear Marisa,

    Good that you have pointed out this in your article. This matter should be subjected to further idetailed.discussion.
    The ideal senario is not to ask any body’s ethnic or racial base. We have to work as one nation !!!
    I too carry a Tamil like surname but hardley been asked the quetion and particularly after the completion of terror war I was NOT yet been asked with the question. Hope very much there is no exaggeration in your article

    .In JVP uprising (terror) a large majority of Sinhalese supported for crushing of that terror But in contrast in case of LTTE terrorism large number of Tamils suported either directly or secretly or indirectly – this the hard fact that all of have to face.

    Since the threat of the terrorism still prevail. Danger has not been wiped out 100%.
    So when identifying possible terror elements one has to revert to its immediate support sources. It is inevitable and unfortunate that only one ethnic group is affected.
    The authorities need to be mind ful and be very diplomatic when questioning ones identity. Also need to adapt some advanced measures in identifying terrorist elements The innocent tamils should NOT be felt harrassed or embarressed.

    Note to Marisa – I am appreciative of your article. Pls mail me to share your thoughts
    Regards
    Sidath

  • LOL

    G:

    I fly almost every week due to work here in the US and internationally. In the US I have never seen ethnic profiling at airports, it truely is random as far as my experience goes, it just seems like you are making a statement about the US policy without having experienced it. While on one project I traveled for 3 months and my boss was on each flight with me and he got pulled a side 90% of the time for secondary screening compared to me! And guess what he is a Caucasian (with a strong accesnt…he is from Wales).

    The key point here is also how the questioning is done, in SL it is usually done in a disrespectful manner. There is no excuse for that, and should be stopped. The problem is you bring in young chaps from the villages with very little education and then throw them in an army with crooks and murderes for Commanders and this is what you get!

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    One of my first names is Asokamala and each of my four sisters have either a Sinhala first name or non-Tamil first name. Now my family is wholly Tamil as far as I know.

    Yet father retired from his job in the education dept. because he did not want to change his number plate to Sinhala Sri.

    I often wondered during the seventies and eighties why he gave us these names if he was so nationalistic as to put his large family in jeopardy by giving up his well-paid job but give us Sinhala names.

    Was he a traitor to Tamils? Looking back I do not think so. He had seen first-hand the 1958 riots and he certainly chose a very ingenious way out for his children.

    As a journalist I was travelling into rebel areas in the ’90s to find out how civilians were surviving despite the economic embargo at the time.
    Many a time the checkpoint soldiers would see my name and ask,”Madamge Amma Singalathe?” and I would give him my sweetest smile and say without flinching,”Ow” and look down.

    We were often waved through. But you might argue isn’t this a security risk?

    Well, soldiers are not stupid. The probably knew we were from the newspapers and I always obtained permission from the commander before-hand and although he would not give me written permission he would give his nod so that if something happened to us he would know.

    There will always be racists and opportunist racists like we had in 1983 who looted Tamil homes and frightened their wits out of them never to return so they could take possession of our property. My family dared not return for the next three years to Colombo.

    You will also find people threatening me here in the UK if ever I mention that I am having a meeting for exiled journalists both Sinhalese and Tamil. I am still finding it difficult to gather young Tamil and Sinhalese journalists together so they could receive training in the BBC and CNN.

    Media organisations do not condone partisan journalism and would not recruit you if you showed any signs of it.

    But it is indeed difficult to get out of the racist mind-set for many.

  • Asela Fonseka

    Marisa,

    Gorgeous, what do you think about Arizona in the US where they are trying to bring in a law which makes immigrants absolutely second class. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1982268,00.html?iid=tsmodule

    I know this does relate to your point however all I want to highlight is that the so called Western countries too take measures which takes out the human rights element when pressed to do so.

    A fonseka

  • Nithyananthan

    Hello’ Madame Marisa De Silva! Greetings to you!
    A model village in our lovely Ceylon, now I hear covered by over grown herbs and bushes, comprised of 02 prehistoric Hindu Temples, 03 famous Churches, 02 Super-grade and 05 Grade ‘A’ schools, A Grade-A Post-Office, A Railway Station, blooming grocery and textile stores and bakeries, Thriving Multipurpose Cooperative Markets and Hospital; a village that produces great educationists, lawyers, illustrious civil servants, politicians, renown engineers and doctors … I forgot … This was what I wrote about my village at Grade – 8 NPTA exam.
    Surely, Madame you had to pass through that model to reach Keerimalai from Jaffna.
    I am not taken-up so much by your annoyance and interaction with ‘Oya Singhaladae / Demaladae’. But as I read, you made not only me feeling jealous of you but also fascinated and incited a feeling in my mind as if I were walking through my lovely village and recalling my juvenile follies like smoking far away from home on a borrowed bicycle riding on the step-path for bathing in the pool by the sea side of Keerimalai almost every other day!
    It would be my earnest privilege by the grace of God if I’ll get an opportunity to see my village, Ampanai fields and the shoreline of that K’Malai ever again. Though I miss I encourage you – our Singhalese brethren! Politically there’s a curtain between us – yet still it’s see-through, the well-knitted social fabric is torn and hanging-on but not yet thrown apart – Hope never will be! Please do visit my land again and again and enjoy the beauty and hospitality of the people with all their draws-backs! May God bless you! Nithy!

  • Rukmankan Sivaloganathan

    So Asela,

    What’s your point? That Tamils are illegal immigrants in Sri Lanka, like the Mexicans are in Arizona? Or is that it’s ok to do it because the West does it?

    Pray educate us. 🙂

  • Thushara Perera

    Hello

    Why can this Author not understand that very obvious situation on the ground. It’s still considered to be , WAR . The country has not come to the normality yet.
    The Author , you are trying to make a mountian out of a mole hill , I would say .
    If you don’t have a common sense and If you don’t know the facts about the world you live , It ”s better not to write , nor trying to be ” a Journalist”.
    Where do you think , the perfect democracy is reigning ?
    UK , USA or Any other European Country !!!!!!.
    Watch closely , you will still see the Tribelism operating in these societies heavily.
    For that , we can not blame anyone, becuase that’s the NATURE. WE , humen , are still evolving !!!!!!!!!!!
    Now , I think she will answer this question too , In a job interview, If I say , I am Sinhalese from Ampara Central Collage, whereas my tamil colleage says I am Tamil from Colombo Suberb Collage, Why he gets the job and I get the boot ?????????

    Please Can you explain that too !!!!!!!!!!

  • Hopeless Tamil in SL

    @Sinhala_Voice said;
    //Racial , Ethnic profiling is quite common in conflict situation. And in places where there have been conflicts or there would be conflicts.

    For example: ALL Pakistani visitors have to report to the nearest ploice station when they are in India.//

    So ‘Tamils’ in’ Sri Lanka’ should be treated as Pakistani’s in India…? So according to Sinhala voice, Tamils come from some other country…perhaps……?

    But India never ask their own citizens (whether it’s Muslims or Seeks) to get registered. And there is a huge difference here..India is not against discriminating to one of its citizens..But here in SL…it’s one of its citizen.

  • eddie

    look, i know its slack, but the suicide bombers, regretably, are tamils. that isn’t to insult the tamil people, who are wonderful. however, the tamil tigers recruited tamil extremists specifically to power its terrorist war. sinhalese were hardly in their ranks. of course, therefore, security falls into ethnic lines. don’t blame the soldier whose just doing his job. he can’t help that the terrorists recruit tamil children to fight their war while they stash money in swiss bank accounts. a sinhalese person is fall less likely to carry a suicide vest than a tamil is, purely because of the above reaons. i don’t think its racism. its just a fact that the risk is higher. hence the need to ask the question. sometimes u need to stop being so idealistic and assess the situation rationally. if the question is not asked, and a bomb goes off, what do u say then?

  • Asela Unans from Canada

    Asking the Nationality is no big deal,

    I am in Canada for the last 16 years or so and traveling to USA very often, a very common question American authorities ask from the Canadians crossing in to USA is where did you born? When I say Sri Lanka they have asked me many times are you a Tamil or Singhalese? It is very obvious they have a concern about the people/group (specific) entering in to their country and it has become a formality to question the ethnic background (after 9/11) I don’t see any big issue in this regard.
    When ever I go to Sri Lankan store here in Toronto (99% of the stores are owned and operated by Tamils) they first speak in Tamil (even with white person) just to show their pride nothing wrong with this, then they try to speak broken Singhalese and do serve Singhala people the best they can do and very friendly manner. If I have to describe them better way Tamil people for Sinhalese “sure they are not your own brother/sister but definitely step brother/sister” combination I guess (blood is thicker than what?). If they (Tamil) have a choice among other ethnic groups they defiantly take the side of Singhalese. (remember all 5 fingers are not the same and this is my personal opinion only)

  • Dilan

    It’s a hangover from 30 years of civil (race) war. Deal with it, and get over it – we all need to. That will be the only solution to the issue. In their eagerness to find SOMEthing to complain about, people forget that the conflict has been over for less than a year. Let’s also not forget that the soldiers at checkpoints, and other folks who ask these questions, generally tend to be from a certain socio-economic strata that is still full of prejudice, sometimes with reason, given the thousands from these areas who sacrificed their lives.

    Do you really think people change their attitudes toward race overnight? I know plenty of white Americans of the baby-boomer and older generation, who still view Japanese with suspicion, still have hangups about “Red China,” and still think all Russians are out to get them, due to World War Two, and the Cold War. This despite the fact that the very existence of the US happens to hinge on the support of those very countries, these days. Meanwhile, their children and grandchildren fortunately have not bought into those prejudices.

    It may take 5 years, 10 years, a whole generation. It won’t be easy, but it will happen. Provided those who have caused and still continue to cause such questions as “oya sinhala da demala da” to be asked in the first place do not continually screw things up.

    In the meantime, we can start by putting a stop to constant griping, and instead show the world that Sinhalese and Tamils, can, in fact get on. Otherwise, we will breed a whole new generation of prejudice.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    There is a lot of bridge-building if we as Sri Lankans are to live in harmony.

    We encounter racism in western countries.

    Those who came to UK from EU talk of how they were segregated and refugees were forced to dissemble computers- a health hazard by any standards.
    They thought life would be a piece of cake; how they were fooled.

    There is a lesson to be learnt; you do not get owt for nowt as the Yorkshire saying goes.

    The earlier Tamil refugees have learnt it the hard way; their hard work was recognised but when they tried to hoodwink the authorities and plead ignorance they could not fool the Brits.

    Now it is payback time and Britain is getting hard on asylum-seekers and scroungers who want to take Britain for a ride.

    Those who work full-time and still claim state benefits are pounced upon and in the long-term they would pay the full price.

    Greed is not tolerated in the UK.

  • longus

    Just like the muslims were checked more than the Whites in America aftet the 9/11 attacks,the suspician being directed at the Tamils soon after the crushing of the LTTE terrorism is understandable.

    Just like the Israelis believe that Israel belongs to the Jews,the Sinhalese believe that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese.

  • This comment is not directly about the article above, but about the concept of race in general (also the post linked below was heavily influenced by aspects of SL Buddhism and the Sinhala-Tamil conflict in SL), & may be of interest to readers here. I am certain that the idea of race is a lie, a false & evil view. I realized this oh maybe over 10-15 years ago, then finally I got around to writing about it back in 2003, check out this old post (that was re-posted today at a new site) called “Race Is A Lie”/”Rejecting Race Theory (with the help of direct experience & secular & religious ideas)”:

    http://religurd.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/rejecting-race-theory-with-the-help-of-direct-experience-secular-religious-ideas/

  • Idealist?

    For all the people saying ‘countries in the West do it’ and citing examples of Canadians entering the US or Pakistanis in India… are you in effect saying that Tamils are citizens of a different country and not EQUAL Sri Lankan citizens? If you are, maybe you are endorsing their separatist ‘Tamil Eelam’ ideology!!!

  • university student

    I am a cynic, thus will have to say,that you are making mountains out of mole hills, and i will answer why this question is being asked from u.

    To be precisely correct, its because the time is too early for those wounds to have healed.The distant parellels and assosiations they draw to the LTTE every time they hear the word Tamil is an involuntary response to the ghastly past we have all encountered.(all ethnicities alike). Though logically absurd the queston may seem, human behaviour cannot be altered in a matter of months to forget and reconsile.

    It will surely take time, lots of time for the wounds to heal, for the bridges that devide us to be built, and in order for that reconciliation to be a permenant concrete fix one would have to patient, patient i repeat….And if u make a fuzz everytime an Army personnely asks you that question, thats not gonna work.

    However the

  • yapa

    Dear university student;

    You are a brilliant student.

    Thanks!

  • sumathy

    I would like to say something here that is a little tangential to the issue that Marisa has raised. As far as I can see the issue that she raises is about why are people asked for their ethnicity at checkpoints, and also how demeaning it is to be asked that and to respond, whatever your ethnicity might be.

    The point I want to raise is something that relates to this, but hopefully more complex than statements like ‘we have had a war’, or that ‘suicide bombers were mostly Tamils’ or on the other side, ‘this is discrimination and demeaning and humiliating etc. etc. ‘

    The point I want to bring up has to do with ethnic profiling we all do, all of the time in this country. I dont like the word ethnic profiling, but am using it as short hand. We use it to stereotype and we use it to produce our own identities. (Productive, in a subjective sense). For I have signed statements as Concerned Tamil, or Minority Citizen etc. etc. To invoke this gives me a sense of power, because the non-Tamil or the non-majority wants to deny any kind of power to me., ethnically speaking. This is a complex weaving of identity production. So, my point is, how come, I who use tamil some of the time to describe myself, do not want to say yes to it, at other times? This is the dilemma. Please do not get me wrong. I don’t like being asked this question at checkpoints, and I have said, I don’t know some of the time. But that’s not the point. How do we twist and turn in a country or in the world at large, that is constantly reminding oneself of one’s place in society,
    What is the alternative to being asked are you tamil, Muslim or Sinhala? Are you Sri Lankan? I am not sure whether I am that happy with being blindly accepted as a Sri Lankan. I dont know what Sri Lankan means any more than what tamil means. Does being a Sri Lankan make me equal to the status of the average Sinhala person? I don’t want to be any average Sinhala person any more than i want to be an average Tamil person. By average Sinhala person, i mean teh law abiding middle class Sinhala person, who will vote for whoever it is in power, or resembles power, and not bat an eye lid over PTA or torture or housemaids. I really do not want to be this kind of person, and thus do not want to be Sri Lankan. Sometimes, I am that kind of ghastly uninspiring person, I am sure. But that does not make it any more appealing in my eyes.
    To digress a bit:
    My niece, who is British, was stopped at a checkpoint in Colombo some time last year. After perusing the passport, the security personnel had asked her whether she was Sri Lankan. She who is born British (whatever that might mean) said ‘no, I am British.’ To which the guy had said, ‘Yah, but you are one of us no? ‘

    I think all of us today carry in our heads and our bodies stories of checkpoints. Some are really harrowing; some have been deadly, fatal. Others have been annoying or more light hearted. The pain of getting humiliated and harrassed by somebody carrying arms and the prospect of harrassment at teh hands of these people
    jolt one’s consciousness into examining identity production. My hope is that this would lead one to examine the overall political conscious and unconscious of our thoughts and deeds and the material reality of these identifications. Then we could perhaps go beyond the rather simplistic binary of ‘there has been a war’ against “I am a sri lankan, why should I be questioned’; or ‘this is reality’ versus ‘this is stereotyping’

  • Nicola

    Of course there is harassment and discrimination at checkpoints. Institutionalised state-sponsored racism.

  • Sumathy,

    Re:

    “I dont know what Sri Lankan means any more than what tamil means.”

    Sri Lankan could just mean a human person who was either born in Sri Lanka (at any place on the entire island), or is a legal resident or naturalized citizen of Sri Lanka. It need not imply any positive or negative values, but a basic starting point for a common identity or individual identity. So, instead of working to establish a Sinhala nation or a Tamil nation within Sri Lanka, people can work towards developing Sri Lanka the entire island (given that others allow them to do so). That approach works well in several other multi-ethnic/multi-“race” countries. For example, in the US – an American can be of any religion, from any ehtnic/”race” background, can be “good” or “evil” (in the view of others), can be agnostic or atheistic or not believe in race theory if they want to, etc. – as long as they are either born in the US or is a legal resident/naturalized citizen, etc. Anyway, belonging to a certain land as a value (positive or negative within a political or ethical context) neutral statement. Granted, this may been very difficult to do for many minorities & even various people from the majority group in Sri Lanka in the past, but, I think, post-war/now, creating a common identity based on belonging to the physical land itself due to birth or legal immigration is a path towards improving the quality of life for people who live on the island.

    – S

  • Dr. Goone

    I ask this question from people too.. but not to discriminate anyone.
    I’m a doctor and I need to know in which language the patients speaks (most of the time I can figure out when they start talking, but sometimes they lie silent even after asking them their names in sinhala and tamil both), so I suppose my need to know whether they are sinhala or tamil is reasonable?

  • Visvan

    The word Tamil means culture, language and a nation (in fact it is a trans nation) I dont think they are ready to give up their nation to call themselves Sri lankan.

    Check out the disgraceful Singhala race on Austalian media coverage – (also President Hon. Mahinda speaks here AND a 24 year old rejects being called a Sri lankan 🙂

    Click play video – http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2009/s2814960.htm

    Check out another disgraceful Singhala race and ongoing slow genocide in SL –
    http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/03/12/sri.lanka.war.survivor/

    Another disgrace by France television –
    Part 1
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VggR_S9aFM0
    Part 2
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN-rckqZh68&feature=related

    So lovely Marisa you want want Tamils (which itself is a nation) to call themselves SL’an after having supported your singhala ongoing slow & fast paced Genocidal war. I know Tamils around the world who call themselves proud Singaporeans , Americans, Aussies, Indians, South Africans , etc.
    Unfortunately the Sinhala ethnic society is unique to mingle with.

    Remember Akon and Sharukh-Khan.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIY_juwlaDc&feature=related

    Even cheap labor Tamil boys wouldnt do that if they were put in the place of Soldiers while questioning Singhalese if the situation was different.

    If groundviews or Marisa is committed for real peace they should work towards creating two nations in this Country. 🙂

    Remember there were Tamil Kingdoms before Sri lanka came into existence and before the Dutch came here. So what’s in the mindset of Eelam/Lankan Tamils is to give back their conquered country back and its current colonial power should withdraw (we were never Sri lankans and never will be 🙂

    Your people are involved in this so that Tamils of North-East cannot say that they had their own kingdoms –
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article7088337.ece

    Also bring laws to reject the Mahawamasa (a bunch of lies and junk) edited from time to time to suit one race which lovely is yours.

    Mahawamasa is considered as the national book of Sri lanka.

    If you write on a similar theme to the above timesonline link above i’m pretty sure you will be in jail now.

    If you want Tamils (very rare thing to happen but its got some chance, to be Sri lankans remove the Sri in Sri-Lanka which means Singhala 🙂 Check out the lankan flag which has a lion in it. If you want peace in this country remove the lion in it. And even after President Mahinda told in parliament there is no minority in the country but the Sri lankan flag represents Tamils by some color and Muslims by Green, then Burgers,Catholics , etc by 4 leaves. Singhala by what ?? > lion. Also the lion has its sword facing the minorities (like a warning, no flag in the world has a wild animal or an animal in it ) and the four leaves ( also represents the outside world as catholics, dutch,burghers, etc ) to look at the lion and to support it in its slow genocidal war. Your article seems like the one written for the west while deep in yourselves you praise the flag and its meanings (smile). The perfect article to get rid of the Tamil identity while you still want yours. I know sticking to a racial identity is bad, you don’t see it in the west. But if your gov insists on waging a war on Tamils I suppose….

    The Tiger flag came about in contrast to the likes of the Singhala-Lankan flag or Sri-Lankan which doesn’t represent any ethnicities 🙂

    But if the gov is to remove the symbols represented by the minorities in the flag they should also remove the lion off it which wont happen till another war starts (probably by India or China and finally when India makes Sri lanka its 29th State, wouldn’t that would be great as India is already involved in activities of such sort)

    But WHAT a racist flag ?? & no other country in the world had any sort of flag that represents distinct ethnicities. Remember one of the reasons that lead to the peaceful protests for 30 years (even Ghandhi would have been killed if he had protested in fuckin Lanka and later the war by national leader of Eelam, Prabakaran for another 30 years) was asking the gov to not have a Sinhala sri in their vehicles. Lankan Tamils protested to have the Tamil version (pronounced “sri” ஸ்ரீ), which is one letter like the singhala sri. After all most of the singhala words are from the Tamil language. Today we dont see this singhala sri stupidity in vehicles anymore.

    The minorities choose to represent the view held by the LTTE as a direct result of oppression from time to time and from suc. president to president.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j89ZVnfOqEw
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmLcHuIhHw4&feature=player_embedded

    I suggest a good stategy is to change the name of Sri Lanka to Tamil Eelam, Tamil Lanka or atleast to CEYLON (my preference).

    Happy to see war ravaged Tamils of the North and East interacting with you & the general South or was I wrong again.

    We were never Sri lankans and never will be and why try to enforce it on the NorthEasterners.

  • Kumaresan

    I too come from an Urban background in Colombo. But if I am asked I will definitely say “I’m Sri lankan” too. That urban Tamil man you mention probably has a family would not want to jeopardize everything by saying “Im not sri lankan “. He does not need to care about it because all he wants is to send his kids educated, and send them abroad some day.

    He knows that Tamils fighting for the cause anymore is going to be harmful.

    haha

  • TMama

    I have been in UK for few decades and I too am asked few silly questions from time to time at various social encounters – why did you not go home after qualifying, was it difficult to get jobs there, are they all that badly paid and all that. Army checkpoints are not different – you are meeting insecure territorial characters in their lair.

    Honestly, I will tell you, it is far better not to play the role of alpha male in such stuations. Be a Gamma character- those in power are far more pleased. I am sure many wise owls of the Jaffna society will agree with me. Ask a friendly former Brit soldier about his experience in the post war Germany or Japan if he had been there he will come out with many anectdotes.

    I think there is a responsibility on the public to answer questions truthfully – to explain and educate and dispel any fear. Army men are there to ensure gelignite transporters, pure ground sniffers for a possible later contingent do not get through. Buried weapons are still being found and there are active LTTE cells in many parts of the world still.

    One cannot build the world on many big ifs, if there were no ethnic cleansing from the times of Mahawansa, if Brits respected Kandy treaty in 1815, if the Sri Lankans were united to welcome the self rule in 1945 and treat their fellow Sri lankans with equality and respect, but on a pleasant lifestyle for the future – with ethnicgroups, races, religions, castes operating in harmony, near equal access to opportunities, higher education, jobs wealth etc. in a world with various inherited advantages.

    We know it was not a perfect picture in the past, not a sigle Mudaliar from maritime provinces dared to speak for those slain in Wellassa. IN the following 130 yearsmany went to great lengths to earn an extra penny by running the extra mile, changing the religion, some offspring marrying into Brits, taking up the British customs, even imitating the limp of the lady when one famous governor’ds wife happened to be one challeneged with a physical deformities in the 1930s.

  • Visvan,

    Re: “If you want Tamils (very rare thing to happen but its got some chance, to be Sri lankans remove the Sri in Sri-Lanka which means Singhala Check out the lankan flag which has a lion in it.”

    You do know that the lion symbol on the current Sri Lankan flag comes from the royal standard of a Tamil king right?

    From Wikipedia (i don’t have the link to this, but search under Lion Flag):

    “The current flag of Sri Lanka incorporates Sri Vikrama Rajasinha’s Royal Standard. In September 1945 it was proposed in an address to the State Council that the flag be adopted as Sri Lanka’s national flag:…”

    Also, this Wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Tamils_of_Sri_Lanka lists Sri Vikrama Rajasinha as a notable “Indian Tamil of Sri Lanka”.

    Regardless, that stuff is the past, just as the horrors caused by the LTTE (& also extremist Sinhalese) is the past (very recent past, however), but, if you want a peaceful & better Sri Lanka for all Sri Lankans now & in the future, theres a LOT of work ahead, and separatism, attmpting to create multiple countries on a small island, is definitely not the way to go.

    – S

  • Observer

    Muslims became the public enemy number one in the West because Muslims waged/wages jihad against the West. Old ladies in Americans flights used to wet them selves when a brown person with a longish beard got on. Not only that, a Seikh with a turban would ring alarm bells and raise the heart raise slightly for the duration of the flight.. lol If a certain community antagonises another community, naturally people become suspicious. Why over analyse human nature so much? We know this by birth. Time will heal old wounds and bring peace, so be patient. The world’s problems were never solved over night. It’s high time we stop overly analysing natural phenomenons.

    No we cannot pull the army camps from the North yet, no we cannot rid the checkpoints yet, we cannot remove VIP security yet, basically no way we can let our guard down yet. We lived with terror for 30+ years. We breath easy now but we’re still exhausted and we’re not ready to relax. Yes we (Sri Lankans) won the war against the terrorists. But we’re also wise enough not let our guard down. Yes you can make sarcastic comments like, oh yeah you won but you don’t have peace yet that’s why you still need the army on the streets, blah blah.. I suggest to you go and read some books on past wars. How long it took for things to return to normality after bitter conflicts. Little less ideology and more practicality would serve you better Marissa.

    Oya Sinhalada, Demalada? Mama Sri Lankikayek, namuth mage bhashava Sinhala.

  • Krish

    Hello friends! Long and informative posts from everyone of you! I have been visiting this site for about 9-10 months now. I must say that it is very disappointing that there is so much of polarization (or disagreement for better word) among communities in Srilanka. Wondering why this is the case!

    As for me, I am a Tamilian from India (or Tamil simply), who is currently residing in the US. I am obviously someone who speaks Tamil as first language. But, coming from a multi-lingual country like India, I find it hard to understand why this problem in Srilanka. In US, every other day, I get to meet folks from India, who speak different languages (Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Bengali, Marathi, Konkani, Bihari, Bhojpuri, Maithli etc etc). Despite the linguistic differences (and even racial at times), there isn’t any sort of enmity among groups. Ofcourse, every place in India has casteistic problems or political problems or mafias too. But, at people-to-people level across states people get along well. I understand that Srilanka is one of the highly educated countries (after Japan and probably China) in Asia. And now that the war is over, isn’t it the best time for everyone to come to an understanding? One complaint when LTTE was there was it suppressed any alternate voice (particularly differing with them). Now that is not the case. Even among the posters here, the Sinhala and Tamil folks differ a lot in their perspectives. I still don’t understand why!

  • Janaki

    @Vishvan

    It is of no concern to us if you do not consider yourself Sri Lankan. There’s a vast swath of Tamil land called Tamil Nadu you might like if you’re feeling really nationalistic.

    You cite a CNN video which features people recruited by the LTTE as child soldiers and a community pushed into a war of nothing but destruction. Shame on Thamiz race?

    The French video picks and chooses who it wants to interview — thus it’s nothing but propaganda.

    Australian refugees risk their life after spending years in Indonesia. Shame on Indonesian race?

  • wijayapala

    Dear Krish,

    Welcome to GV. I lived for some time in Tamil Nadu and I think I can answer some of your questions. Inter-ethnic problems come out more on the internet, but in Sri Lanka itself they are not so apparent. I have traveled throughout the Sri Lankan north and east, and I have never been treated shabbily by any Tamil whatsoever (except for the LTTE). Given my experiences, I tend to see Sri Lankan Tamils as a harmless, inoffensive people (we say “Tamils,” you say “Tamilians”- another difference between SL and India).

    Probably the biggest difference between India and Sri Lanka is their size. The average state in India is twice the size of Sri Lanka; they can almost serve as separate countries in their own right. People of different ethnic groups can get along maybe because they have the sense that they have their own “homeland” in some other part of India.

    In some respects the history of Sri Lanka parallels Tamil Nadu although there are important differences. After Kamaraj, Tamil Nadu politics became dominated by Dravidianism, while in Sri Lanka the Sinhalese adopted a somewhat similar concept of Sinhala nationalism.

    “Reservations” were passed in Tamil Nadu to limit the overrepresented Brahmins and uplift other castes, while in Sri Lanka there was “standardization” to limit the overrepresented Tamils and uplift other communities (crudely speaking). The difference is that young Brahmin students did not take up arms, but young Sri Lankan Tamils did.

    The Sri Lankan war started in 1983 with an LTTE attack against an army patrol that killed 13 soldiers. In response, there were anti-Tamil riots that killed about 3000 people. Not very different from the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi the following year that boosted the Punjab insurgency. However, India already had a large army to fight in Punjab, while Sri Lanka had to build its army from near-scratch. This army was poorly-trained and had little discipline, leading to many massacres and other misdeeds against the Tamils. This helped prolong the war until recently, when the army became more disciplined and more proficient at fighting.

  • wijayapala

    Hi Visvan,

    The word Tamil means culture, language and a nation

    I thought Tamil means “sweet.”

    remove the Sri in Sri-Lanka which means Singhala

    Sri means “resplendent.” It is equivalent to the Tamil prefix “Thiru.”

    Sri lankan flag represents Tamils by some color and Muslims by Green, then Burgers,Catholics , etc by 4 leaves. Singhala by what ?? > lion.

    I heard differently. The green and orange colors on the SL flag do not represent Tamils and Muslims per se but were intended to be included together to show solidarity with India (whose green and orange colors represent Hindu and Muslim unity). The four pipal leaves represent Buddhism, not the other minorities.

    As for the lion, I am not convinced that it is an exclusively Sinhala symbol, at least historically. The name of the medieval Jaffna kingdom dynasty was Arya singai (or “Arya Chakravarti” as mentioned in Mahavamsa), and Nallur the capital in those days was called “Singha Nagar.” The Jaffna historical chronicle claims that Jaffna kingdom was founded by “Ukkirasingan” who was a distant relative of Vijaya the first Sinhala king from Mahavamsa. Jaffna had plenty of lions!

    I suggest a good stategy is to change the name of Sri Lanka to Tamil Eelam, Tamil Lanka or atleast to CEYLON (my preference).

    How about “Ilankai?” I like that name.

    Did you know that “CEYLON” was derived from “SINHALE?” (Sihale -> Portuguese Ceilao -> Dutch Ceylan -> British Ceylon)

  • wijayapala

    One more observation for Visvan,

    The Tiger flag came about in contrast to the likes of the Singhala-Lankan flag or Sri-Lankan which doesn’t represent any ethnicities

    Why did Prabakaran choose the tiger? The tiger was used as a symbol only by the Cholas of S. India. In Jaffna there was the bull (and the lion!), and in Batticaloa the symbol was the singing fish, but no tiger.

    Seems that Thalaivar knew so little about Sri Lankan or Ceylon Tamil culture, that he had to borrow a symbol from India! 😀

  • ModVoice

    Dear Wijayapala,

    “Inter-ethnic problems come out more on the internet, but in Sri Lanka itself they are not so apparent.”

    Not surprising, is it? The anonymous nature of the internet lets out the true-self. I wonder who would have the guts to openly criticize the government there before getting the famous white van ride.

    “People of different ethnic groups can get along maybe because they have the sense that they have their own “homeland” in some other part of India.”

    The only place where you can see the Indians together is perhaps a cricket match. Otherwise, they are torn apart by all sorts of issues. The north vs. the south; the Kannadigas vs. Tamils; the Hindus vs. Muslims; caste divisions, etc. I suspect that they already have underground networks that aim for separation.

    ““Reservations” were passed in Tamil Nadu to limit the overrepresented Brahmins and uplift other castes, while in Sri Lanka there was “standardization” to limit the overrepresented Tamils and uplift other communities (crudely speaking). The difference is that young Brahmin students did not take up arms, but young Sri Lankan Tamils did. ”

    You left out the part with Banda-Chelva pact and other peaceful demonstrations that yielded no results, hence, fueled Tamil nationalism and the youth to take up arms in Sri Lanka.

  • ModVoice

    Wijayapala,

    “Why did Prabakaran choose the tiger? The tiger was used as a symbol only by the Cholas of S. India. In Jaffna there was the bull (and the lion!), and in Batticaloa the symbol was the singing fish, but no tiger.”

    I believe it is a common notion that Sri Lankan Tamils were descended from these Cholas, hence the Tiger flag.

  • I always say “I’m Sri Lankan”, every time! and all my application forms in Sri Lanka get thrown out because I fill
    Race:.Formula one……..

  • Humanist

    Thank you, Marisa, for this simple but thought provoking piece on power and identity. Check points are a facet of life in post-war Sri Lanka, a facet that some of us at least would ideally like to disappear. However, as some commentators have pointed out there are pragmatic reasons for their conitnuous presence. Ideally we would have liked to have a peace and reconcilitaion process, where asking questions such as whether people are Sinhalese or Tamils at checkpoints become meaningless, just as much as having those check points in the first place. However, those in political power and a sizeable proportion of the population who support them have decided otherwise.

    So should keepers of law and order, ask us a question such as this? Your piece is a vignette of comtemporary Sri Lankan life at a checkpoint. As you and others here have mentioned these questions are asked in other contexts as well. As human beings, our identities are multi-layered – we are men and women, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and Veddhas, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and atheists, mothers, fathers, children, youth, English-speaking, Sinhalese-speaking, Tamil-speaking, etc, etc, Some of us who have lived abroad have taken on South Asian, brown/black and “Third World” identities, as well as the Sri Lankan one. Depending on the context, we assert these identities. Human beings are usually adept at selecting from their multiple identities one which recognizes some sort of commonality or shared experience with others. So we English speakers know for example, that in a government department, we need to shift to a Sinhalese-speaking identity to get things done. On the other hand, an English-speaking Tamil has a better advantage at a private sector interview than a Sinhalese-speaking Sinhalese. Perhaps, an English-speaking Sinhalese will have advatages over an English speaking Tamil in some companies and vice versa in others. That people stereotype other people and have prejudices is a fact – ideally they should not but unless societies work at this over a period of time, things don’t change. However, given the reality, we cannot blame people for negotiating their way through life by affirming some sort of common bond they might have with others.

    The problem with Sri Lanka over the last 30 years is that the Sinhala vs. Tamil identity has become the overriding one and I think we need to all work towards dismantling that. We need to regain the space to affirm our multiple identities without being chastised or discriminated for this. Affirming our Sri Lankan identity is a choice we make depending on how we define it (i.e. with a place, ethno-national identity, a nation state, an authoritarian state, etc.) and how comfortable we feel with it.

    So my answer to your question, should the question whether you are Tamil or Sinhalese be asked at checkpoints – no of course, not. What is the use of our free education system if police and army officers cannot read identity cards or passports. The fact that the question is asked at all at checkpoints points to the truism that actually nobody can distinguish a Sinhalese or Tamil just by looking at a person (although of course, everyone has their stereotypes and prejudices).

    Given that we will be asked the question, whether we like it or not, how do we ideally respond? Mama manushyek. And if we have to fill in forms with that outdated category of “Race” – keep filling in “Human”. That is at least what I teach my children. As the commentator above has suggested, “Formula One” is a good try if you have the time to spare.