Restoring the “Sri” in Sri Lanka

In Genocide, Global Issues, Uncategorized on August 27, 2010 at 3:00 am

Sri Lanka is one of the worst current humanitarian crises in the world today. Why doesn't anyone know about it?

So, working my way down my list, I decided to write about the first topic that caught my attention a few months ago: Sri Lanka. My mother has always kept me informed about the happenings in the country, mainly its decades-old ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Singhalese. It resonates with me not only because my family is Tamil in origin, but because Sri Lankan culture in itself is one of the richest and most well-preserved in the Asian continent. But I realized that I don’t know enough about the country or the people to understand how this ethnic conflict came about, and what its implications are on me, or to the rest of the world. So here’s my attempt to figure out the social, political and ethnic history of this little island.

Let’s start with the basics: geography. Sri Lanka is a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal, close to the Indian Ocean, located to the South-East of the Indian subcontinent. Its capital is Colombo, and it has a population of about 21,324,791 (not including the many thousands of refugees that have escaped the country in light of the recent hostilities). Being ocean-locked makes the country a major producer of hydropower, and Sri Lanka is also home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.

In terms of ethnic divisions, Sri Lanka is mainly composed of two groups: Tamils and Singhalese. The

The tiny island of Sri Lanka is located in the Bay of Bengal, close to the Gulf of Mannar.

Singhalesemake up almost 73.8% of the country’s population, and they are predominantly Buddhist.  The Tamils, on the other hand, constitute about 8.5% of the country, and thus, are clearly the minority. Distinctions may even be made between Indian Tamils (from Tamil Nadu and other parts of Southern India) and Sri Lankan Tamils—both of whom speak Tamil, but significantly different variations of it. Sri Lanka also has a Muslim minority of 7.6% and a Christian minority of 6.2%. Therefore, ethnic, linguistic and religious differences abound throughout the land.

But Sri Lanka, unlike much of the Western World, has not managed to strike a balance between the majority and the minority. In the US, even though we generally agree on the policy of “Majority Rule”, the government accommodates the voices of the minorities (Ex: Jewish and Hispanic lobby groups, labor coalitions, LGBT organizations, etc.) by protecting their right to protest and voice their opinions on legislation. Even if a state or group might have unequal representation in the House, a single senator who is willing to acquiesce to the needs of a minority can stop a piece of legislation from being passed in the Senate. Thus, all efforts are made to protect the minority voice, and the majority usually refrains from stomping on the minority. Well, the exact opposite is happening in Sri Lanka. The Singhalese majority government has been making, and continues to make, advances to separate the Tamils from Sri Lankan society. The result is a large-scare ostracization of the Tamil population from society, worsened by the legislative stripping of minority rights one by one, that has caused what many writers around the world are calling “a genocide”. Even though American media calls international reporting on this issue a “barrage”, most of the country, and indeed the world, fails to see WHY this issue exists today, and how we should be reacting to it. In fact, humanitarian crises like the one in Sri Lanka have received little attention, if any, from international news outlets due to press and media restrictions throughout the country.

Isn't it amazing, how something as simple as a language can make or break a people?

So how did this ethnic conflict turn into a genocide? Certainly not in a span of a day or two. Historic, and especially ethnic, rivalries like this are bred over generations of friction between the two groups. The relations between the Tamils and Singhalese has been stressed from the start. Sri Lanka gained independence from British rule in 1947. Soon afterwards, the Singhalese majority began passing laws that isolated Tamils from society and government. The Citizenship Act of 1948 required anyone seeking to be a citizen to prove his/her connection to the island for 2-3 generations, making it almost impossible for Tamilians to become citizens. Next, the Singhala-Only Act of 1956 denied citizenship to over a million Tamilians, and mandated Singhalese as the only official language in the country (Tamil was banned). This Swabasha (“our language”) movement is described by Neil DeVotta as an event where “ politically and economically marginalized Sinhalese forces coalesced to demand preferential treatment from the government.” Thus, the Singhalese slowly began to take over all aspects of Tamil culture, ultimately perpetrating their own as the sole on the land. For Tamilians, this is an especially touchy subject, since Tamil has the longest unbroken literary tradition of the Dravidian languages, and has been spoken since circa 3rd Century BC, making it one of the oldest modern languages. Wiping out the language makes it impossible to transmit the culture to future generations, thereby causing reactionary separatist movements in the Tamil-Sri-Lankan subculture.

It’s these little yet definitive actions against the Tamils that made them scared for their lives. In 1971, the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), a Singhalese militant nationalist organization, organized an insurrection against the government demanding complete Singhalese hegemony in the country. Even though the government put down these rebellions, it allowed the JVP to continue their nationalist agenda from 1987-1990, often bringing Colombo to a standstill. In 1983, in a move shockingly reminiscent of pre-Holocaust Europe, the Singhalese government conducted a state-sponsored pogrom of the Tamil middle class in Colombo and killed almost 2,000 people. These acts have been rightly described, in the words of anthropologist Stanley Tambiah, as “fratricide”—brother against brother, even when both people occupy the same land and have shared the country for more than 70 years now. When thus threatened, the

Majority of the minority Tamils are placed in displacement camps like this one, often in squalid living conditions.

Tamil minority reacted by forming several revolutionary organizations to protect themselves. The de facto organization for this goal became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE): a separatist organization that is known for its overt military attacks against the Singhalese government. To its credit, the LTTE stopped attacks when a new concessionalist constitution emerged in 1978. But military engagements resumed when the death of 13 soldiers in 1983 led to the retaliatory killing of several hundred Tamils. Peace talks with LTTE were opened in 2002, and a ceasefire mandated by the Norwegians was put into effect, but violence resumed in 2005 with an increase in suicide bombing attacks from both sides. To many, there seems to be no end in sight.

While the world has been quick to condemn the LTTE as a terrorist organization for its militant separatist engagements throughout the country and around the world, it fails to see the movement in the context of the Tamil situation—how can we look at movements such as the White Rose, or the Hungarian Revolution and see them in a positive light, but still consider the LTTE a negative force? The general attitude of most people seems to be “They know more about this than me, so the policy analysts must be right”.  It seems ironic to me that a movement striving to protect the rights of a minority (something that Amnesty International and the UN aim to do also) is being condemned as a terrorist organization. If there were pursuable peaceful methods, they have proven to be ineffective, and LTTE is only trying the best way it sees to protect the Tamil minority in this context.

Today, Sri Lanka is split into two warring factions forced to live together in a forced ceasefire that threatens to break into open conflict any time. On one side are the Singhalese—often including the politicized  Singhalese Buddhist monks

As majority Singhalese are proud of their Buddhist heritage, monks have often been used as religious tools to manipulate public opinion against Tamils (famously in a photo of a monk burning himself)

that hold a lot of control over the rural and religious population. I, for one, find it ironic that believers of Buddhism, a religion that preaches peace and harmony, can lead such oppressive and inhuman practices. One only needs to read any international news report to see the extent of oppression—Jegan Vincent de Paul, an MIT student from Jaffna, writes about how the Sri Lankan military is mercilessly bombing civilians and establishing “welfare villages”—rather, concentration camps, forcing displaced Tamils to live there for years. Despite this situation, I’m not advocating victimization of the Tamils in this situation, but I am rather advocating a fuller grasp of the Sri Lankan paradigm rather than writing it off as mere “ethnic insurgency”. Yes, the LTTE is involved in many disastrous military engagements, but only because they perceive the Singhalese as consistently threatening their own culture. If a third party can successfully mediate the situation to a safe degree, we may succeed in stopping the action-reaction cycle of fratricide and establish stable peace.

People, often individuals rather than organizations, have been trying for years to draw attention to this problem from around the world. Often, the only ones that CAN speak out about Sri Lanka are the migrants who have escaped the oppression and fled to countries like Canada and Australia—since Sri Lankan press freedom continues to be severely restricted. Many prominent people that have tried to raise awareness about or raise funds for the Tamils have been persecuted against—notably Reverend Jeyanesan. Even organizations like Save the Children have faced a lot of criticism for providing resources to the Tamils. Though the UN can’t do much in the situation, it has publicly encouraged people to continue sending in donations to help the displaced in Sri Lanka.

So what can YOU do to help? The biggest help you can do is be informed. Watch more international news, and read up on everything I had to skip to make this blog post make sense. And realize that even when news networks might seem like they are telling you a story, they’re not telling you all of it. Donate to the UN, if at all possible, share this story with your friends/blog readers, and please keep up with independent blogs like A Voice in Colombo and Tamil News Network that report on Sri Lanka’s everyday.

PS: A note on the blog title: “Sri” in Hindu culture/India is a title of respect of respect, self-esteem and honor. Unfortunately, what I’m seeing through the country’s current policies and actions is a clear move away from that goal and ideal. Let’s try to restore peace, and bring universal respect, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliations, back to the Sri Lankan people, shall we?

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