A-Z of Sri Lankan English, Colombo, Jaffna, Language, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

A-Z of Sri Lankan English: E is for Eelamist

The word Eelamist (as adjective or noun) refers to a person or organisation which supports the Tamil separatist cause in Sri Lanka. Like certain other -ist words (Zionist, Islamist, Loyalist), the word is loaded with political connotations – an article of faith for some, a term of abuse for others. But it is also used in serious political discourse, for example in these quotes from Groundviews:

  • “Sri Lanka’s pressing security interest of neutralizing Eelamist activism abroad.” (from here)
  • “If by ‘Tamil politicians’ Mr. Dayasiri is referring only to the Eelamist elements within the TNA,” (from here)
  • “Groups supportive of the TGTE and Eelamist propaganda are getting increasingly vocal” (from here)

I remember being surprised when I first saw a Tamil children’s alphabet book with a map of Sri Lanka labelled Eelam. But of course Eelam is the original Tamil word for the whole island, now referred to as Ilangei. Both words are derived from the same origin as the Sinhala name Lanka and the English name Ceylon, though which came first (Eelam or Lanka) is still a matter of dispute.

Nowadays of course Eelam (or Tamil Eelam) normally refers to the separate state in the North and East of Sri Lanka claimed by the LTTE and other separatist groups. In LTTE maps this state covered about a third of the island, including the west coast all the way down to Puttalam, and the east coast all the way down to Kataragama. Eelam was first declared a separate state in 1990 by the short-lived EPRLF administration under Varatharajah Perumal. Later it became a reality of sorts under the LTTE, with Kilinochchi as its capital.

The word Eelam is commonly used in English-language contexts, for example in the names of Tamil militant and/or political organisations such as LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation), EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party), EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front), EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students) and PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam). Even in Tamil, these organisations are commonly known by their English abbreviations.

The word is also used in the term Eelam War, which has become a common way to refer to the war, and especially to its different stages: Eelam War I (1983-1987), Eelam War II (1990-1995), Eelam War III (1995-2002) and Eelam War IV (2006-2009). Sri Lankan commentators often use the term Eelam War rather than the alternative Sri Lankan Civil War, which is more common in international contexts. Both terms may be seen as problematic depending on one’s point of view: Eelam War because it implicitly defines the conflict in Tamil separatist terms, and Sri Lankan Civil War because it elevates the conflict to something more than just a war on terrorism.


A-Z Sri Lankan English

A-Z of Sri Lankan English is an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.

  • “But of course Eelam is the original Tamil word for the whole island” So you have gone and made me an Eelamist! Thanks. Good but just take out multiple Eelam wars, there was one, be it civil or not, it is done with. Let us fix what we can and move on. Because there are people walking on mine fields, sleeping with hunger and anger.(LLRC) That is more important than languishing on useless terms like the way from your own logic;
    Sri Lankan Civil War = Eelam Civil War, and for the sake of lazy Sri Lankan tongue, like mine, becomes Eelam war. Fail.
    Thank you for keeping me abreast with those by gone abbreviations and the link to the SL English.

  • sumathy

    What you say about Eelam not being used in the older sense now is not qutie correct. Eelam is regularly used by people, mostly the literati, but also by others, to denote the entire island. Those who are habitual users of the language, read a particular kind of Tamil regualarly, would instinctively distinguish between the different political connotations of the term; whether it means the entire island or a separate state.

    Just a few years I discovered that there was a militant group in Nepal called the LTTI: Liberation Tigers of Terai Ilam. It was one of the many Terai groups askign for some sort of autonomy and I do not know whether the group still exists. They had nothing to do with the LTTE politically or militarily from what i understood in my conversations with activists in Nepal.

  • Sie.Kathieravealu

    Eelam is one of the Tamil names for the whole Island. The political groups/movements that emerged for the “liberation” of the Tamils from the Sri Lankan Government used the name “Tamil Eelam” to distinguish the Northern and Eastern Provinces caliing the rest of the Island as “Sinhala Eelam” Fom their point of view, there are two nations in this Island – Tamil and Sinhalese.

    I do not want to go into the “politics” of the names.

  • In the “Land of The Blind” aka “Idiot Island,” where I PresiDunce Bean am the “Caretaker” for life, there was a tourist group called the “Liberal Tourists of Tranquil Elysium.” Many of them and their families were “Permanently Rehabilitated” by my “Peace keepers” in a “Hoo manitarian Apparition.” Now “Idiot Island,” known to the “Tranquil” minority race as “Elysium,” has been re-named by me as “The Utopian Paradise of Jilmart Island.”

  • Sumathy

    Can one talk about Sri Lankan in purely descriptive terms. I can see that Michael Meyler running into trouble here, and has had to deviate from his usually ‘pure’ description. He has been made to recognize the political connotations of the term.
    This prods me to think more provocatively of Sri Lankan English itself; And this is why I have a problem with the objectivistic attempts to be descriptive about it.

    By that same token any language would be like that. But I kind of wonder about the politics of that action. And when it comes to Sri Lankan English, just adding Tamil, Muslim and other words to it, will not suffice. One needs to look at the politics of language ge making itself.

    In a way, this E for Eelam has opened that debate up. It has not opened any can of worms, but it does make one think. But while i cannot say I understand all of what the respondents say, the very fact that they there is an implicit understanding of the political connotations of term and the politics of language itself, makes me think that they like me are grappling with teh issue of Sri Lankan english as a political project and not just another language/dialect issue.

    And why E is for Eelamist and not E is for Eelam. This also makes me wonder as to whether Meyler’s approach is also inherently a dominant Sri Lankan (read: dominant Sinhala) one. Eelam as something exotic and as the other; zionist, loyalist, Islamist (whatever that might be). Who is an Islamist by the way?

  • Swarga Leno

    The Tamil word eelam always meant Sri Lanka from the cangam times, two thousand years ago: in referance to eelathunavu meaning rice; to the modern times, where the word eelam appears in the official Tamil version of the Sri Lankan National anthem composed in the late forties of the last century. This official Tamil version of the anthem was sung in schools and other govt functions until recent times. The anthem ends with the words- Eela siromani valvuru poomani namo namo thaye.

  • Padda

    @ Sie.Kathieravealu – There are no two NATIONS in Sri Lanka. It has only ONE NATION and that is Sri Lankan. SL Tamils are only a RACE not a NATION.