By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka: A Haunted Nation – The Social Underpinnings Of Communal Violence– Part 9
Ethnicity: The Futility Of Backward Projection
The case of Kosovo in the (former) Yugo- slavia illustrates the absurdity of, and the violent passions engendered by, attempts to project backwards the ethnic composition prevalent at a given time. The Albanians were one of the area’s older indigenous groups. Slavs from the north did not expand into the region until the 9th century AD. Serbs, a Slav group, did not become significant there until the late 12th century when the Serbian state extended south- wards from its base in Rascia. In the next two centuries many Albanians adopted Serb names and became assimilated. Subsequently the region came under the Ottoman Empire, which had modern Turkey as its hub. The instability resulting from the decay of this empire caused a fresh wave of Albanian migration. In being forced to seek the protection of Muslim war- lords, the price was often conversion to Islam. It was not until about the middle of the 19th century that Kosovo came to have a majority of Albanian speakers. The subsequent relative decline of the Serb population owes to factors such as the area’s backwardness which prompted Serbian migration, the fact that Serbs were concentrated largely in urban areas where the birth- rate was lower, and, crucially, the high abortion rate among Serbs. Today Kosovo has a vast majority of Albanians with the great majority of town and village names remaining Serb.
Interestingly, attempts were made in the 1920s to redress the balance by introducing Serbian colonists into Kosovo, who were not welcomed even by the native Serbs. An extract from Rich- ard Crampton’s fascinating review of Noel Malcolm’s A short history of Kosovo [TLS, 24 April 1998] is given in Appendix II. Crampton says:
“Noel Malcolm argues that if a solution is to be reached in Kosovo and these wider dangers [of a Balkan conflagration] are to be avoided, both sides, Albanian and Serbian, will have to discard their ‘blinkered views of the history of Kosovo’. The Albanians, he argues, will have to give up their cherished beliefs that the Albanians have constituted the majority of the population since medieval days. They might also have to recognize that the anti-Ottoman, and therefore by implication, nationalist credentials of their fifteenth century hero, Skanderbeg, are not quite what Albanian nationalist myths would have us believe. Yet it is the Serbs rather than the Albanians who now wield power in Kosovo. The discarding of their nationalist blinkers and the destruction of their nationalist myths is therefore the more urgent task.”
Such wisdom in Sri Lanka is, alas, long over- due. It should then not be difficult to reach po- litical accommodation on contentious matters that would allow life to go on peaceably for all concerned.
The Separation of Tamils
Behind Jayewardene’s nervousness and du- plicity, the ranting of Mathew, Premadasa making populist gestures to protect his own interests, Athulathmudali having stolen a march on his rivals, and Gamini Dissanayake keeping his options open, the country was inexo- rably moving in the direction of division. The main agenda of the day – ‘destroying the basis of Eelam’ – was being dealt with by JOSSOP, drawn from the security services, and a host of state agencies. It meant a rise in the level of blood-spill and bludgeon leading to the first massacre of Sin- halese civilians, mainly convicts planted in Mullaitivu District after driving away the resi- dent Tamils, on 30th November 1984.
The following well-informed description of the (Weli Oya) project appeared in Don Mithuna’s column in the Weekend of 2nd December 1984:
“The present Government’s scheme is to settle those Sinhalese who were ejected from Vadamunai in the Eastern Province (i.e. Maduru Oya basin) af- ter their encroachment on state land became a ray of controversy last year, along the Padaviya border and eventually form a line of Sinhala defence from Padaviya to Nedunkerni in the North, in the Mullaitivu District. Jungle areas are being cleared close to Ariyakundan, Dollar Farm and other places. Four roads have been opened up from Padaviya to the Dollar Farm, Kumbakarnan Malai, Ariyakundan, Kokkuchchankulam, Kokkuttoduwai and Vedukkanmalai. Jeeps and vehicles belonging to the Army, Agrarian Services, Illmenite Corporation, Tobacco Corporation and Petroleum Corporation are being used for various purposes connected with this project. Some Sinhalese families have already been installed near Dollar Farm.
“Neither the Government Agents of Vavuniya nor Mullaitivu, nor AGAs nor Land Officers who are Tamils know anything about what is being planned. The area is well-protected by the Army and an air of secrecy surrounds the district. Sounds of bulldozers working in the night are heard by the vil- lagers along the Mullaitivu border. Huge pipes are being transported.”
This was about the first move in settling an expected 200,000 Sinhalese ex-convicts and other rough elements in the North to make ‘the Tamils live among the Sinhalese’ as put by Athulathmudali. The Tamils had been driven away by a mixture of force, threat, murder and rape. We also see the variety of state agencies whose resources had been commandeered to- wards this end. What is even worse, the man- ner in which the State functioned had taken on an explicit conspiratorial stance towards the Tamils. It was a logical step from the July 1983 violence. Although titled ‘Gandhiyam Vendetta Leads to Brutal Massacre in Mullaitivu’ the piece above was certainly written and typeset before the LTTE’s massacre at Kent and Dollar Farms on 30th November 1984.
The Weli Oya project described above was the first project where the policy required keep- ing all Tamil officials in the dark. The GAs of Mullaitivu and Vavuniya had been reduced to cyphers, kept in ignorance of what was being done in their own administrative division. In the meantime the Sinhalese GA in Trincomalee was a hand-picked man, given resources and power to do what a good and sensible administrator should never do. Weli Oya was the first project in which geographical place names were being changed in conformity with an ideology.
To those of this mindset, every Tamil in a modest career position became a suspected trai- tor and a threat to the nation. Herman Gunaratne in For a Sovereign State, claims that in spite of the Tamils fighting for a separate state, ostensibly because of discrimination, most of the top positions are held by Tamils. He accuses some of them of working closely with the ‘ter- rorists’ and of having ‘established a network of es- pionage with tentacles reaching into the very core of the Government’. Among those holding the ‘top most’ positions in the government (late 1984) he lists (p.177): K. Sharvananda (Chief Justice), S. Pasupathy (Attorney General), Rudra Rajasingham (IG Police), Sunderalingam (DIG Police), S.S. Joseph (DIG Police), Navaratnam (DIG Police), P. Mahendran (DIG Police), Lakshmi Naganathan (Ambassador, Bonn), Balasubramaniam (Ambassador, France).
With what happened in July 1983 and after- wards, this mindset became logically necessary. It could not be otherwise when the State as a whole was directed against the Tamils. What the list above showed was the powerlessness of the Tamils. The positions above were largely sym- bolic without any influence in decision making. The only Tamil of any standing in the institu- tions central to Gunaratne’s book was T. Sivagnanam, earlier Secretary to the Mahaveli Board, who in the time that matters had been replaced by Ivan Samarawickrema. The Mahaveli Authority, the CECB, the security ser- vices and several other ministries and depart- ments were able to execute the Weli Oya project in such secrecy that it became an issue only when some settlers were killed by Tamil militants.
To these persons who looked for Tamil con- spiracies everywhere, even these Tamils who did their work obediently and in no way threatened those in power, came to been seen as a dire threat. Rajasingham, Sunderalingam, the other Tamil DIGs and Shanmugam who was acting for Mahesan Selvaratnam, Commissioner of Police, Colombo, then on overseas leave, made next to no impact during the July 1983 violence.
Some time after the violence E.L. Senanayake, former minister and speaker of parliament, visited the government controlled Ceylon Daily News for an interview. He then observed to a journalist, “You Jaffna Tamils control the Daily news, every section is controlled by you people.” It then occurred to this journalist that there were Tamils heading three sections, including Fernandopulle in Sports. What they were doing was hardly more than to telephone ministers in the morning for stories and sometimes accompany them on outstation visits.
A report by V.G. Kulkarni in the Far Eastern Economic Review of 17th November 1983 stated: “Several Sri Lankan diplomatic missions abroad are headed by Tamils, and influential UNP leaders ex- pressed disapproval of that, though official publicity brochures still available highlight Tamil representa- tion at high levels. Last month a major diplomatic reshuffle was ordered which would remove Tamils from many important and visible positions abroad. A local Sinhalese daily newspaper had an apt head- line for the story: ‘More Sinhala faces abroad’.”
All these moves have flowed out of the logic of July 1983. But that event again resulted from choices made during a long drawn out process during which the state machinery was being di- rected against the Tamils. We have dealt with colonisation, and more pointedly, to the system- atic vilification of Tamils and ex-parte decisions in respect of university admissions from 1970 to 1978.
The most absurd and revealing in the course of the vilification campaign was the role of Cyril Mathew and his Ministry of Industries and Sci- entific Affairs. The resources of this Ministry were used with the connivance of undoubtedly the President and the Government. Three books written in Sinhalese under the name of Cyril Mathew by a ghost writer were published at state expense and were distributed in the pre- cincts of the most revered of Buddhist shrines, the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, on festive occa- sions. The titles of the books are indicative of the target: Who is the Tiger?, The Cheat’s way to the University and The Invisible Enemy of the Sin- halese.
The ghost-writer in question was an Addi- tional Secretary, Ministry of Industries. In what sort of a modern nation is a public servant whose task is to run state industries sidelined to au- thor hate literature? What were our state indus- tries expected to produce? Why were questions not asked by those concerned with the country’s welfare?
There can be little doubt that such efforts con- tributed to and reinforced the fund of ill feeling against the Tamils. Few had the conviction to ask searching questions. Even many who dis- liked violence found it easy to talk about the popular anger amongst the Sinhalese against Tamil provocation in the form of separatism and terrorism. It became a ruse for not taking the Government to task. August bodies such as the Citizens’ Committee for National Harmony got away by preaching to the Tamils to give up separatism, which few Tamils until then had seriously wanted anyway.
T.D.S.A. Dissanayake published his account of the 1983 ‘racial riots’ with hardly a mention of Cyril Mathew. While condemning what is in his reading the foolish violence of the Sinhalese, he places much of the blame on Tamil provoca- tion (p.100): “In happier times their provocations through communalism knew no bounds. In these unhappy times their provocations through terrorism and vilification knew no bounds.”
This is also repeated in his War or Peace in Sri Lanka of 1995 (p.54): “… the Tamil people in gen- eral and those from Jaffna in particular, have systematically provoked the Sinhalese. A backlash against the Tamils, especially the bigoted among them, was inevitable.”
Such a conclusion placed against a more ob- jective account of events reveals a deep gulf even between Sinhalese and Tamils who had been classmates in leading schools and in university. Dissanayaka had after all managed to give the prison massacres in his account by simply quot- ing from the Magistrate’s conclusions. The same theme of provocation occurs more subtly in V.P. Vittachi’s book by making out the key Tamil grievances to be fraudulent.
The main issue has in the process been lost sight of. It has less to do with Tamils supporting separatism. Rather, it has to do with the State having separated the Tamils. The corrosive pro- cesses it has engendered have made it difficult to undo the damage. Out of this has arisen a fascist force, which can only breed in this envi- ronment of continuing alienation. It is con- demned to perpetuate its totalitarian claims by denying the Tamils any other alternative.
To be continued..