Colombo Telegraph

Brief History Of Sri Lanka And Resolution Of Conflict Looks Nearer

By G. K. Nathan

Dr. G K Nathan

Legendry history of the Island, known as Lanka to Sinhalese and Eelam to Tamils, starts with epic of Ramayana based in two countries India and Lanka or Eelam. There are places in the Island linked to the epic and folklore tales are told by peoples about these places in the Island by both ethnic groups. The places linked to Ramayana are venerated and respected by all; even though there are perceived differences between the Sinhalese and Tamils, as they speak different languages and pursue Buddhism and Hinduism, respectively. Genetic studies show commonalty in the evolutions of peoples, taking all aspects of life of both Sinhala and Tamil peoples show that there are many common features between the two Nations. The strategic location of the Island in the East – West Sea route, in the Indian Ocean, attracted foreign visitors to the Island from the beginning of Common Era (CE). It is known to foreign visitors by different names as: Taprobane, Serendip, Zeylan, Ceylon and in 1972 the Island was renamed as Sri Lanka using the Sinhala name, but in Tamil the Island is referred to as “Illankai” a derivative from the word Eelam, Illam.  Even in this modern era,  Sri Lanka remains as a strategic location as seen from the stands taken by China, India, the USA and the UK on the conflict.

Peoples’ antiquity in Sri Lanka has been a point of contention, beside the numerical strength of Sinhala and Tamil peoples; the best way to pursue, the unresolved rights of a Nation, is to use the UN International covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR). Nevertheless, political leaders of the majority Sinhala community have used the claim of antiquity and their numerical strength to decide the rights of other minorities, in particular that of the Tamil Nation.  Examination of the antiquity of the Sinhala and the Tamil Nations in Sri Lanka will be guidance to others to enforce a justifiable solution to the long standing conflict in Sri Lanka.      Relative geographic location of countries in the region is undoubtedly a good indicator of the probable migration patterns between neighbouring countries to determine the antiquity of claimants in Sri Lanka.  Fact that the West coast of the Island is separated from the Tamil country in South India by Palk Straight, only about 20 km apart at the narrowest point is a good pointer as to who would have been the first visitors? The geographic location of the two countries points to Tamils as the first settlers in the Island. Tamil Brahmi script found in Tissamaharama, Southern coast of the Island further proves the antiquity of Tamil settlement based on language dating back to 120 BCE.  In comparison, Sinhala language only appears in inscription dated between 8th to 9th centuries CE, which shows Tamil, was in use, almost a millennium before Sinhala language came into use in Sri Lanka.  Also there is evidence that people lived in the Island, as early as, 125,000 years ago and during this period the subcontinent and the Island were at times were bridged; making land communication a distinct possibility; further prove that migration of people between the Island and the southern subcontinent has occurred far back in history.  Mahavamsa, the chronicle compiled in the 6th century CE by Buddhist monks, used Pali a North Indian language which came into use with introduction of Buddhism in the Island. Mahavamsa, the main source of Sinhala history failed to refer to practice of Buddhism among Tamils in the Island and as well as flourishing of Buddhism in South India, where many very rich Tamil Buddhist literature were created.  Many scholars have rejected fanciful story of landing of Vijaya in Ceylon. According to H W Codrington the story given in the Mahavamsa about the advent of Vijaya has been copied from earlier legends found in Jataka stories. Considering the proximity of the Island to South India, this story has a very small element of truth and only some Aryans from the North of India did come and settle in Ceylon, and mingled freely with the Dravidians of Ceylon and South India. Codrington remarks that the resulting position was – though the Sinhalese language was of North Indian origin – the social system of the Sinhalese is that of the South.  Perhaps use of Pali in Buddhist writings may have influenced development of Sinhala language to be identified as of North Indian origin, but the genetic study of Tamils and Sinhalese, referred to above confirms this interpretation.  Unfortunately, the politicians of Sri Lanka, to gain popularity among Sinhala Buddhist perpetuated the myth; which has turned for the worst led by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) with the support from members of ruling hierarchy. While the moderate Sinhala elements’ voices are lost in the loud noise, the BBS declares “Sri Lanka is Sinhala Buddhist country” and attacks on Mosques, Hindus temples, Christian churches and religious symbolisms are on the rise, with no action taken against perpetrators.  Britain’s action at the time of Independence in 1948, contrary to past history brought separate “countries” together in the hope that there will be amity between peoples.  Looking back at that decision to unify the country rather than decentralization of power at the time of Independence has been proved wrong, needing urgent remedial action to restore peace in the Island.

Divided Island in the Pre – Colonial Period

Details of pre-colonial history of the Island was mostly based on records kept by Buddhist monks who lived in monastery and kept regular records under the patronage of rulers, which is known from Mahavamsa written in the 6th century CE, also played key role in consolidating Buddhism among people. Mahavamsa is the only source that most Sinhalese believed contrary to other facts, leading them to accept that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country. The colonial occupation of Sri Lanka and studies conducted during that period proved otherwise. The emergence of modern scientific methodology and the record keeping by colonial rulers of the Island showed otherwise that Tamil people lived in the Island long before the arrival of others into the country. Furthermore, evolution of Sinhala language at the end of first millennium CE casts doubt on the antiquity of Sinhala people and it challenges the Sinhala Buddhist mythology.

The Tamil country was identified as “Coylat Wanees Country” in an engraving done by Wilhem Broedelet in 1692 based on a map drawn by Robert Knox in 1681 and published in London in his book “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon”. This showed that the Tamils occupied a larger area than that was propagated by present day Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists that the Island belonged to Sinhalese, as the original settlers. On the contrary the map given below identified three separate countries as: Tamil, Hill and Southern countries. The Tamil country covered most of the coastal areas: North West, North and East of the Island, but the depths of the interior boundaries were fluid. Tamils occupation of coastal area was understandable, as a seafaring nation sea route provided them the best mode of transport and related economic activities for a living.

Interest in the spice trade for which the Island was well known, attracted the colonialists; the Colonial history of the Island starts with the landing of Portuguese in Ceylon, in 1505 and ends with the promulgation of unitary constitution at the time of independence in 1948. About four and half centuries of colonial rule, was almost equally divided between the three colonial rulers in the given order: Portuguese, Dutch and British; each ruled for about one and a half centuries.  During the colonial occupation, the differences between the truth about the Tamils in the country and Mahavamsa myth was expounded.  The number of Kingdoms or “countries” that were in existence in the Island was identified with defined boundaries; in particular the Tamil Kingdom and spread of Tamils in the North and the East is proved beyond doubt, from the records of the Colonial rule. The colonial occupation also exposed the falsehood in the claim by political leaders that the Island is a Sinhala Buddhist country, contrary to facts shown here. The above diagram done independently shows that Tamil people lived in the North and the East from time immemorial.  Sir Hugh Cleghorn, British Colonial Secretary, June 1799 further confirmed when he said: “Two different nations, from a very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the Island: the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior in its Southern and Western parts from the river Wallouwe to Chilaw and the Malabars (Tamils) who possess the Northern and Eastern Districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion….” Why did Britain fail?

All three colonial powers ruled the former Sinhala and Tamil Kingdoms, as separate and independent “countries”; only after the fall of Kandyan Kingdom to the British, that the Island was unified as one country by the British for administrative convenience.  In 1833, the first official survey conducted by R. L. Brohier showed the ethnic distributions which resulted in identification of five provinces, of which North and East provinces were demarcated as Tamil provinces, the other three Central, South and West as Sinhala provinces.  Positive development as the result of unification of the Island as one country led to the development of links with highways and railways, which increased mobility and interaction between the peoples.  Tamil labourers from South India were brought to work in tea and rubber plantation. Also, the country was divided into nine provinces, though North and East were reduced in area, remained as Tamil provinces and referred to as Tamil homeland; total area a little less than third of the country.  Also recruitment of both Sinhala and Tamil peoples for running of the Colonial administration, brought the peoples who were living in their own enclaves, close together, increased understanding between them, strengthened the trust in each other.  Steps taken to devolve power by the British to the peoples, ignoring the past political structure and independent countries that existed prior to the arrival of Colonial rulers sowed the seed of dissent between the two nations. Tamils’ protest began with boycott of the State Council election in 1931, in 1936 demanded 50-50 representation between Sinhala and other minorities and opposed the promulgation of a unitary constitution at the time of independence in 1948, drawn by Pan-Sinhala ministry  that was boycotted by the Tamils. The British constitution failed to recognize the multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious composition; disregarded the two millennium long historical facts and the opposition from the minorities.  British decision that denying the two-third majority in the parliament and the protection provided to the minorities rigths in section 29(2) “no such law shall, (a) prohibit or restrict the free exercise of any religion; or (b) make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; or (c) confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions, or…”  is sufficent has been proven wrong.

Post Independence’ History, Justifies the Right to Self Determination

British artificially created a country bringing Tamil and Sinhala Nations together for administrative convenience, but failed to provide protection to rights of minority Nation. A few of the countries so created by other colonialists have survived the test of time due to acceptance of equality among all Nations which made up the unified country. In many cases artificially created countries, splintered or in the verge of splintering into independent Nations because of one Nation, usually the majority, subjugating and oppressing the other nations within the country.  Recent examples of splintering of former unified countries are: USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, The Sudan, Eretria and East Timor from Ethiopia and Indonesia, respectively. There are peoples within China, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia wanting to exercise their rights to Self-Determination, which is being denied by the dominant power. The pre colonial history of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) outlined above shows peoples in the Island lived as separate countries for centuries, even during colonial occupation, but British denied that right to the Tamil Nation when granting Independence.  Perhaps British decision may have been influenced by Hindu-Muslim rivalry in the Indian sub-continent, what British tried to prevent at the time of Independence, happened a few decades later in Sri Lanka.

Expectation the British had of the Sinhala majority to respect the minority rights was not met. Instead, the first act was disenfranchisement in 1948 of Indian Tamils, who were brought to develop the hill country plantation sector that was then the backbone of economic activities. British Silence and failure of India to condemn the communal act and initiate remedial action did not augur well for the future of minorities in Sri Lanka. Disenfranchisement of Hill country Tamils was immediately followed by start of state aided colonisation of Tamil homeland in 1949 and the introduction of Sinhala Only Act in 1956. Peaceful protest of Tamil Nation against denial of their legitimate rights was met with successive pogroms against Tamils. The first three acts, immediately after independence revealed the agenda of Sinhala majority government of ethnic cleansing, which resulted in waves of migration of Tamils to foreign countries. The Tamil diaspora has become a bone of contention to Sinhala government in their pursuit of making Sri Lanka a Sinhala Buddhist country. The minority representation in the parliament was more than one third at the time of Independence as a guarantee, to safeguard rights of minorities, but the above acts decreased to less than one third in the first general election of the parliament after independence. Two decades after independence the Sinhala representation increased to 80%, which facilitated further marginalization of Tamil Nation through parliamentary process; these despicable acts against the Tamil Nation occurred because the world turned a blind eye and continues, even today.  Tamils after being marginalized in the parliament, only option left to them was non-violent Gandhian style protest demanding equal rights, which was met with more violence and pogroms against them, often aided by the hierarchy of the ruling political party. Also Tamil youths were deprived of educational and employment opportunities, which led to Tamil youth militancy. The Tamil people endured the worst “Black July” pogrom in 1983, a watershed event in the history of Sri Lanka, in which over 3000 people were massacred and properties destroyed, Island wide. Victims since Independence have neither been meted out with justice nor paid any compensation for the losses.

Knowing the Truth – First Step to Reconciliation

The final military conflict between the Sri Lanka armed forces (SAF) under the command of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and directed by his sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as defence secretary  and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended on 18th May 2009. The world took a peep at death and destruction that occurred during the conflict via international media and reports presented by Human rights organizations, which made the world to take a another look.  United Nation Secretary General (UNSG) at the conclusion of his visit to Sri Lanka on 23 March 2009 issued a Joint Statement with President of Sri Lanka which “underlined the importance of an accountability process” and the Government of Sri Lanka agreed that it “will take measures to address those grievances”.  The UN Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (PoE) was appointed by the UNSG and their report lifted the lid on atrocities that occurred during the conflict, whereas, President Rajapaksa maintains to date that the war was conducted against “terrorists” with “zero casualties”.  The PoE found credible allegations, which if proven indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law were committed by both combatants.  The information available on last stages of military conflict is shocking and the UN panel of experts estimated that about 40,000 people perished. There was criticism from member countries for the failure of UN operation in Sri Lanka, to prevent what supposedly happened; which resulted in UNSG appointing a UN Internal Review Panel to investigate the UN operation in Sri Lanka and its failure during the conflict to examine the short coming of UN operations. In a short period the report was completed and estimated the number of deaths at 70,000, much more than the PoE number. Both Panels appointed by the UNSG did their estimates without visiting the country as the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) refused to grant them permission and facilitate the process. The Social Architects group of academics based inside the country carried out a survey in both Tamil provinces and came to a conclusion that 118,036 people were killed during the last stage of the conflict from September 2008 to May 2009.  The Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), appointed by GSL to investigate final stage of the conflict, as part of the agreement with UNSG, failed to give a number for the civilians killed. Bishop of Mannar in his submission to LLRC raised the discrepancy between data available prior to the beginning of conflict and the number that was incarcerated, 282,380 people at the end of the conflict; there was a discrepancy of 146,679.  Taking into consideration thousands of people migrated to the West as refugees, the figure 116,036 looks very close to the truth.  President Rajapaksa before the final onslaught, ordered all the UN and NGO personnel to evacuate the war zone and he claimed that the war was conducted with “zero casualty” this was often repeated, all the reports available other than LLRC say a different story. The veracity of this number need to be confirmed, which can only be done by setting-up an Independent International Inquiry (III), which will reveal whether breach of International human rights and humanitarian laws have occurred.  The call for III is being pursued by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, David Cameron Prime Minister of the UK who recently announced at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka and many others have joined in the call.

The history of more than eight decades long struggle for Tamils’ rights started with boycott of State Council Election in 1931 and continues to date without recognition of Tamils’ rights, but solutions looks faraway. The “Unfettered Genocide of Tamil Nation”, a book published by Karnataka State Open University (Mysore 570006, India, 2013) records the struggle of Tamils’ right prior to Independence to the present. Many key countries have responded positively, while Sri Lanka remains intransigent about implementing any of the recommendations to solve the long standing Sinhala-Tamil conflict. The UK as the former colonial power has moral and fiduciary responsibility for placing the Tamils at the mercy of Sinhala chauvinist who never accepted the Tamils as equal in the Island. The USA as the only superpower together with other countries have passed two resolutions the first one at 19th session (Promoting Reconciliation in Sri Lanka – A/HRC/19/L.2) and the second one at 22nd session (Promoting Reconciliation in Sri Lanka – A/HRC/22/L.1) at UNHRC, to uphold human rights of peoples in Sri Lanka, to start with implement parts of LLRC report. So far remains unfulfilled. India as the immediate neighbour of Sri Lanka, a regional power, one of the world economic powers and a country with over 80 millions Tamils living in the country has every right to intervene to settle the conflict in the region, as it threatens India’s internal security and its own stability.  India acted in 1987 and signed the Indo-Lanka Accord which remains unimplemented; also one should take note that India intervened in 1971 and liberated East Bengal and in 1983 supported the Tamil youth militancy by providing military training.

In comparison to Sri Lanka, the British parliament recognized the differences of peoples within the United Kingdom; devolved power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The UK has gone one step further and set an example with respect to Scotland, by granting the people of Scotland, the right to hold a referendum and to decide its right to be independent country or part of the UK, which will be decided next year. Scottish and British peoples, the differences are very little compared to differences between Sinhala and Tamil Nations of Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka differences are far greater because of ethnicity, religion and language. It is up to the International community that a referendum of Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka is held to determine their wish, which will bring once and for all peace in the region. The responsibility is in hands of International community, but the UK, India and the USA have greater moral responsibility and need to show leadership.  The US President Barack Obama paying tributes to Nelson Mandela at the memorial service in South Africa to- the largest gathering of world leaders from about one hundred countries, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka on the World Human Rights Day-  reminded of Nelson Mandela’s  achievement and said that “his death is an opportunity for the world to promote a legacy of racial reconciliation”. The inspirational speech delivered by President Barrack Obama, gives hope to the subjugated Nations and warning to leaders who fail to honour and respect the human rights of others.

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