Are Sri Lankan Tamils prone to collective political suicide?

Photo by AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena via SBS

We have entered the ninth decade since the Donoughmore Reforms leading to the first State Council elections of 1931. Through the early part of these eight and a half decades, Sri Lankan Tamils had occupied a dominant position in this country, politically, economically and socially. The leading political institution of this community in the 1920s was the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC) which was very highly regarded by the leaders of every political party of Sri Lanka as well as by the leaders of the Indian National Congress. Virtually every one who was invited to attend one or the other of its annual sessions promptly accepted and participated. These included Gandhi, Nehru, Rajagopalachari, and many others from India as well as the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress, N.M. Perera, Peter Keunaman, Swami Vipulananda, the leaders of the “Indian” Tamils, the Moors and the Malays and numerous others. The JYC could have played a major role in the run up to independence that the Donoughmore Reforms signaled, and helped to shape the Constitution and structure of the Sri Lankan state. Yet they decided to boycott the first State Council elections in 1931 on the grounds that the reforms, though far reaching, were not adequate. Nehru, who was at that critical session on invitation by  the JYC, was horrified but unable or unwilling to interfere when that decision was taken. In consequence of the boycott the JYC excluded themselves from the first State Council, lost their credibility and, within a decade, were no longer taken seriously. This inevitable outcome should have been clear to them when they took the boycott decision because their leaders, though young and inexperienced, were intelligent and persons of some eminence. This was perhaps the first instance of collective masochism and political suicide by the Sri Lankan Tamil community. Sadly, many other such instances followed in subsequent decades.

The first parliament of Sri Lanka was won by the UNP which included those from many ethnic groups including Sri Lankan Tamils, Moors, Malays and “Indian” Tamils and Burghers. The Tamil Congress and the party representing the “Indian” Tamils were also well represented as also the Communist Party and the LSSP. With a view to perpetuate their dominance the Sinhalese led UNP proceeded to remove citizenship and voting rights from the overwhelming majority of the “Indian” Tamils who then constituted 11% of the population of this Island. Most of them were well settled here, working in our tea estates, and knew no other homeland. Virtually all the other political parties were against this and, had they stood together, this project might have been abandoned. Unfortunately, the major section of the Tamil Congress crossed over to the UNP and facilitated the removal of citizenship and voting rights of the “Indian” Tamils. This act was not only treacherous to their less privileged fellow Tamils, but also suicidal in that in future parliaments Tamils and other Tamil speakers would be underrepresented and vulnerable to discriminatory legislation. This too should have been clear to the eminent Sri Lankan Tamil leaders.

Inevitably, many discriminatory legislation followed, notably the Official Language Act of 1956 that made Sinhala the only official language. The passage of this legislation was accompanied by physical violence directed at Tamils. This was followed by a sequence of anti-Tamil legislation, anti-Tamil acts such as Sinhalese colonization of Tamil majority areas and “Standardization” of university admissions, reducing the intake into universities of Tamil medium students, and more anti-Tamil violence. The recruitment of Tamils to the public services, especially to the Police and the Armed Services, was also curtailed. None of these may have happened if the Tamil Congress had not helped the UNP to facilitate the 1949 legislation that targeted “Indian” Tamils, resulting in the depletion of the Tamil composition in parliament and also loss of good will of the left parties. This act of the Tamil Congress was surely as suicidal to Sri Lankan Tamils as cruelly unkind to “Indian” Tamils.

The Tamil youth violence that started in the early 70s could be claimed as having been provoked by severe ethnic discrimination and repeated failure of nonviolent attempts to stop such discrimination. However, such violence was patently doomed to fail. The failure of the Tamil leadership to condemn such youth violence encouraged the youth to embark on more violence. Given the demographics of Sri Lanka, any and every attempt to resolve ethnic conflicts through violence will inevitably hurt the minorities more than the majority and, moreover, such attempts are bound to fail. We thus see this violence as one of the roots of the escalation of anti-Tamil pogroms culminating in July 83 and leading to the 24 year civil war. The ill-considered and provocative Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 adopting the goal of secession added fuel to the fire. The minorities and especially the Tamils have undoubtedly been victims of grave discrimination and violence, but the Sri Lankan Tamil response was suicidal.

The Indian intervention and arrival of the IPKF in 1987 provided a further opportunity to resolve the ethnic conflict but this was scuttled by the LTTE. The 13th Amendment of 1987 to the Constitution provided a partial solution to the ethnic conflict but this was not fully implemented by the State. Moreover, the LTTE and sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership did not accept the 13th Amendment. The LTTE’s resort to violence against the IPKF not only hindered a political solution but also alienated the Indian government and substantial sections of the Indian people. This was made much worse by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. These two suicidal acts sealed the fate of the LTTE and severely affected the prospects of the Sri Lankan Tamil population.

The assumption of office of President Chandrika Kumaranatunga provided a further opportunity to settle the ethnic problem. The draft constitution prepared by Neelan Tiruchelvam and Prof. G.L. Peris under her direction was excellent. Again, this was scuttled by the LTTE which assassinated Neelan Tiruchelvam, attempted to assassinate (and gravely injured) President Chandrika Kumaranatunga and compelled the Tamil leadership to reject that draft constitution. President Chandrika Kumaranatunga made vigorous attempts to get that draft constitution accepted in parliament and by the population, but in the context of its rejection by the Tamil M.Ps, those attempts failed. If the LTTE and the Tamil M.Ps had accepted the draft constitution, it is possible and even likely that it would have got through parliament and settled our ethnic conflict. This was yet another instance of collective political suicide by the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership, although in this case they acted under threats of death from the LTTE.

The enforced boycott of the Presidential election 2005 by Tamils in the LTTE controlled areas tilted the balance from Ranil Wickremasinghe to Mahinda Rajapakse. Though a massive bribe was given not to for this enforcement, it was in any case in line with the LTTE’s long standing suicidal boycott policy and precipitated its destruction.   Sadly, it also resulted in the destruction of the lives and livelihood of hundreds of thousands in the Vanni, mostly Tamils, who were unwilling victims of LTTE’s suicidal decision combined with the brutality of the armed forces of the state. In consequence the Sri Lankan Tamil community is now politically, economically and socially a pale shadow of what it had been for centuries.

We now have an unprecedented situation, following the 2015 January Presidential Election, in which the elected Tamil Leadership has been invited to participate in drafting constitutional reforms to be coordinated by Jayampathi Wickramaratne  and in promoting national reconciliation and resolution of  the ethnic problem under the guidance of Chandrika Kumaranatunga. We have also, perhaps for the first time, Sri Lankan Tamil leadership at the apex that appears to be willing to accept these invitations and to participate in government. Unfortunately, there are also other Tamil leaders who echo the old refrain of boycott, boycott, and raise issues such as genocide that can only hinder progress. The issue is not whether there were genocidal policies pursued by the state, by the LTTE or any other agency, but whether raising that issue at this stage will serve any positive purpose. Further there remain numerous problems, eg. of misappropriated lands that could be returned to the rightful owners but have remained in the hands of the armed services, state institutions, and others not entitled to it. Also, the list of those killed or detained by the state has not been supplied. Further continued dominant militarization in the North has provoked affected bur fearful women to boycott the Missing Persons Commission. Despite numerous short comings yet remaining, we cannot afford to miss this opportunity to participate that may not come again for decades. Moreover, as we all know, the socioeconomic position of the Sri Lankan Tamils has continuously declined almost since independence. Not all of us know of the horrible depths to which lives of vast sections of the Tamil population of the Vanni, and very many others too have descended. Dr. Rajan Hoole describes these depths in vivid, meticulously researched detail in his book Palmyra Fallen, UTHR (Jaffna, 2015).

If this decline continues, not only will the terrible misery of war victims multiply; the kind of solution that may be available a few decades from now will be much inferior to what may be available now, and  of course incomparably  inferior to what might have been available decades earlier. What is required, now as always,  is intelligent, principled participation, neither blind acceptance of whatever is offered nor refusal to negotiate. Affluent and well placed Sri Lankan Tamil individuals, especially those in the Diaspora, may contemplate staging yet another boycott, but that will impact cruelly on the vast majority of the Tamils based in this island, of whom over a million are direct or indirect victims of the war.