The myth about the Tamils of Sri Lanka

"Unfortunately, just as the Tamil extremists want independence, there are Sinhala extremists who want to keep a unitary state. The correct solution, therefore, lies somewhere in between. So there is a need to explore power-sharing, devolution, federalism and so on."

by J. T. Janani

(August 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The first casualty of war, they say, is truth. Sri Lanka has been at war for almost three decades. This article examines the myths surrounding the conflict in Sri Lanka.

The first casualty of war, they say, is truth. Sri Lanka has been at war for almost three decades. Hitler famously noted that if you’re going to tell lies, then tell a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

The greatest lie about Sri Lanka’s conflict, the central claim that cloaks international community’s amoral support for the Sinhala effort to militarily crush the Tamils, is that the Tamils are happy to be part of Sri Lanka, save for a few ‘grievances’ about language rights, access to jobs and such.

This is the starting point for most explanations about what is going on in Sri Lanka, interpretations of what the Tamils are saying and what should be done to ‘resolve’ the conflict.

In the wake of this fundamental claim, the Tamil demand for independence is, therefore, the demand of ‘extremists’. There is, of course, no possibility of reasoning with extremists, so the correct response is to attack and destroy them.

On the other hand, the Tamils are not without grievances of course: they want their language rights, access to jobs (i.e. to development) and to have some local government powers. Given all this, they’d be content citizens of Sri Lanka.

It is true that almost a hundred thousand Tamils have perished in the Sinhala dominated state’s efforts to destroy Tamil extremists. But the Tamils understand the necessity of this, because, remember most Tamils – 95% according to the US Ambassador – don’t want independence. Most Tamils just need their small grievances attended to.

Unfortunately, just as the Tamil extremists want independence, there are Sinhala extremists who want to keep a unitary state. The correct solution, therefore, lies somewhere in between. So there is a need to explore power-sharing, devolution, federalism and so on.

Now, the Sinhala extremists are very few – they support the JVP. Most Sinhalese, the majority, support the SLFP or the UNP. But these are also reasonable people because, remember, by definition, a majority of a people cannot be extremists.

But the most important thing is to destroy the extremists on both sides. As long as the Sinhala extremists (JVP) don’t win elections and the Tamil extremists (Tamil Tigers) can be wiped out, then the reasonable, moderate people on both sides can get together and ensure the Tamils have their language rights and get jobs and so on.

The above sums up the logic of the international community.

The central claim, repeated frequently, is that most Tamils “don’t want Eelam”. To begin with, it is not explained why not. It is not clear what is so appealing about the Sinhala-dominated state that is supposedly making Tamils reject independence. It is simply asserted this is so.

And anything the Tamils say to the contrary is either ignored or, more often, dismissed as the voice of the extremists.

So on the one hand, all Tamil efforts to say no, they do want self-rule, they do want to be independent is ignored. For example, the Ponghu Thamil mass rallies are dismissed as LTTE events. Even if the LTTE was organizing these events – and that is to ignore the hundreds of Tamil community organizations that worked to bring hundreds of thousands of people to these events, then so what? Which mass demonstrations around the world haven’t been organized? Again, because we already know “most Tamils don’t want Eelam”, we know that these people were forced to go to these: what they wanted to really say was not “We want Eelam”, but “We want to be Sri Lankans”.

On the other hand, those Tamils who contradict this ‘most Tamils don’t want Eelam’ myth, for example, talking about ‘state racism’ or ‘state terrorism’ or ‘oppression’ or ‘genocide’ are dismissed as extremists – or even ‘supporters of terrorism’.

At the same time, those Tamils – like the paramilitary groups working with the Sri Lanka Army – who echo the ‘Tamil don’t want Eelam’ line, are celebrated as ‘moderates’ and the ‘true representatives’ of the Tamils.

Now this myth falls apart if one looks closely at Sri Lankan politics. There is no
‘peace movement’ of any standing. Indeed, there never has been.

There are no major rallies drawing Sinhalese and the Tamil speaking communities – Tamils, Upcountry Tamils and Muslims – together in defence of this blissful myth that the international community asserts.

There is not Tamil-Sinhala grass roots movements. There are no Tamil-Sinhala political parties. There are no Tamil-Sinhala civil society groups. Even though, as – in another derivative of the myth – it is repeatedly asserted that ‘most Tamils live amongst Sinhalese’.

Of course there is the odd Tamil in the Sinhala entities and vice-versa (there’s even a Tamil MP in the Sinhala extremist JVP). Tamils and Sinhalese sometimes purchase at each other’s shops.

But, crucially, given the ferocity of the decades long war, there is no shared vision of a future Sri Lanka. There is, however, agreement on the present Sri Lanka; that it is a Sinhala hegemony. And hence the war – the Tamils want to be free of this ethnocracy, the Sinhalese want to maintain it.

This is not a new dynamic. Post-independence Sri Lanka has always been this way.

Which is why in 1977 – almost exactly thirty decades since the British handed power to the Sinhalese, the Tamils declared they’d had enough and voted overwhelmingly for the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and its single point platform: Tamil independence.

Which is why within a year of independence, the Sinhalese had enacted racist legislation and alarmed the Tamils – who then couldn’t envision the vicious repression coming their way – to ask for federal autonomy

You notice there is no response when we point this out. Instead we get the repeated assertion that ‘most Tamils don’t want Eelam’.

The truth, therefore, is plain to see. The Tamils want Eelam. The Sinhalese don’t want to relinquish control of our homeland (they would be delighted if the rest of the Tamils fled the island – so much for multiculturalism). In short, there is no midpoint.

Why do the Tamils want Eelam. It is not because we have a sense of superiority to Sinhalese. It is because we are persecuted by the Sinhalese. We are trapped within Sinhala administration because the British – with typical contempt for all Third Worlders, lumped the ‘islanders’ together and gave sovereignty to the Sinhalese.

Whilst we continue to make our case, to outline our suffering, to rationalize our demand for self-rule, to appeal for international sympathy, we must recognize that pleas will get us nowhere.

The world’s major powers, whilst pontificating about human rights, good governance and such, have readily slaughtered millions of people – mainly in the Third World – in the pursuit of their own interest. (Recall how they first assisted Indonesia as it wiped out 30% of the East Timorese in a short war of conquest and then, three decades later, suddenly howled about human rights and forced Indonesia to give up its grip on that country – and its vast oil reserves).

Faced with international refusal to accept our claims, for decades the Tamil people have been appealing to reason. They say you can wake someone who is sleeping, but not someone who is pretending to be sleeping.

The international community is ignoring us because they can and there is nothing to benefit them from taking up our case – except to pressure economic and geopolitical concessions out of the Sinhalese.

The only way we can secure our long term survival and well being is by placing ourselves on the international agenda. It is only though our own state that we can secure protection from Sinhala hegemony and, just as importantly, make the world listen to us.

We have to stop worrying about the myth about us. We have to ignore the reality that we are being deliberately ignored. Instead, whilst keeping up our efforts to wake the pretend sleepers, we have to look to ourselves, to our own abilities, to our own capacities, to our own determination. The liberation of the Tamil people can only come from ourselves. Anything else is a myth.
- Sri Lanka Guardian