19 November, 2018

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In Light Of Dr Nalaka Godahewa’s Speech At The UNHRC In Geneva – Part V

By Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

[Part 4 of this series was published on Thursday, the 23rd November 2017]

More on the Points Dr Godahewa has raised

  1. No other minority community in Sri Lanka seems to be complaining about discrimination based on ethnicity; there is no discrimination based on ethnicity; It is pure political propaganda (by the Tamil political leadership) with an ulterior motive.

Dr Godahewa’s statement that “no other minority community seems to be complaining about discrimination based on ethnicity” is a total misrepresentation of facts. The non-majority communities in Sri Lanka are many fold. There are Tamils, Muslims and Burghers, then Hindus, Christians, Malays, Chinese, Kfirs amongst others. Out of these only Tamils, Malays, Chinese and Kfirs could be considered ethnic based. Others are not ethnic, but they are faith based. How could anyone be unaware of the several recent disturbances in the south against non-majority communities just because they are Christians[1] or Muslims[2]? Bodu Bala Sena fuelling the flames of conflict against Muslims in Aluthgama in June 2014 received widespread condemnation and swift action was urged by the international community to curb the deadly riots. Intentional disturbances against Tamils[3] and Malaiyaha Tamils[4] have continued in some estate plantations in the south, even after the end of the war, for which there is no reasonable justification.

  1. Tamils holding very high positions in politics, judiciary and academia, in government and private sector are evidence for non-discrimination;

Holding high positions do not reflect inclusiveness

Non-majority community members holding high positions in the public and private sectors is not a barometer by which existence of non-discrimination or equality in a country can be gauged. In the United States, African-Americans have moved a long way from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow laws of racial segregation. Many have held prominent positions of power and wealth. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Muhammed Ali, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson, Patricia Roberts Harris, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Loretta Lynch and Susan Rice are some notable celebrities who have shone in politics, judiciary, academia, music, arts, media and sports. Yet, discrimination and racial violence continue in the US both at personal and institutional level. Despite holding high positions many had made enormous sacrifices and paid with their life due to discrimination or because they chose to stand up against discrimination. Crispus Attucks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali and Dr. Maya Angelou, just to mention a few. Most of them had to revolt against the State to defend civil rights and rights of the black people. The 1992 acquittal of white policemen in the case of the savage beating and killing of Rodney King[5] – the 47 year old African-American taxi driver, aptly drives the point.

Many First People of Australia (the aboriginal people) have been prominent members of the society. They have excelled in various disciplines, but the issue of discrimination against the First People has never ceased. Even now, the indigenous leaders are calling for a referendum on establishing a special Indigenous Advisory Council.

In Sri Lanka, as we know, there have been many Tamil cabinet ministers, cabinet secretaries, two opposition leaders, government agents, district secretaries, academics, artists and sports personnel. Tamil political parties have joined hands with many governments forming coalitions. There have been many illustrious Tamils elected or appointed for prominent positions in Sri Lanka’s two main political parties. These individuals have wielded power, on and off, for the last seventy years. Yet this has not shifted the institutionalised cultural prejudice and discrimination that the Tamil community and its members had endured.

If the language policy framework of 1956[6] was designed as an affirmative action to redress grievances of the Sinhala Buddhists because they suffered under colonialism, then the same affirmative action should have been made available to Tamil Hindus who suffered a similar fate under the colonial rule. The Sri Lankan colonial economy was primarily based on the plantation sector and the infrastructure development in the country was designed to cater to this economy. The harsher climate of the north-east drylands could not profitably contribute to this colonial economy underpinned by the plantations, and therefore infrastructure development in the region was very insignificant. Under the circumstances, Tamils had considered education and public service as the only avenues for upward social mobility. Even the pro-colonial, post-independence regime that was in power since 1948 did not carry out much development activities in the north and east. While economically the situation of the Sinhalese down south was very similar, the discriminatory language policy framework compounded the situation of the Tamils.

As mentioned earlier, the Jaffna Peninsula is predominantly a region affected by arid terrain, water scarcity, low irregular rainfall, environmental degradation, shallow sandy soil and salinity. Crop productivity, employment rate and income from farming continued to be unsatisfactory due to the policy failures in allocating lands for agricultural growth. In such an environment, receiving good education was considered to be offering the best chance for a bright future. It is, therefore, no wonder the Tamil community perceived the government’s standardisation policies of the 70’s as blatantly discriminatory. Reaction to this by the young Tamils was to increasingly support Tamil nationalist politics that culminated in the demand for a separate state. Such unfair discriminatory policies and large-scale opening of educational institutions – whose curricula wasn’t helpful for gainful employment – contributed to the youth uprisings in the south as well as in the north.

Dr. Godahewa’s simplistic arguments are so cheap and ridiculous, it beggars all belief. Equality cannot be proven by the statistics of people who defied the odds as though it is a common and welcome occurrence in the country. Only respecting diversity and embracing inclusivity will make the country prosper.

American missionaries

The American missionaries arrived in the island in 1813 and established the American Ceylon Mission (ACM) in Jaffna. For geopolitical reasons, the British restricted the American missionaries comprising the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians to Jaffna Peninsula for about 40 years. However, the British missionaries, comprising the Methodist, Baptist and Anglican sects were present in the rest of the island. The primary aim of the American missionaries was to convert Hindus to Christianity. To assist this process, they established many distinguished educational and health institutions in the region.

The missionaries were engaged in translating, printing and publishing, establishing primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions and providing health care for the locals. As a result, their literacy level rose up in comparison to the rest of the island. Despite the Sinhala nationalist allegations, Tamils had no responsibility for this imbalance. Even when restrictions that confined the American missionaries to Jaffna was lifted, divisions between the missionaries in the island’s north and south continued. American involvement in the missionary activities continue to this day, but its critical role came to end with the turn of the 20th century.

In 1816, the first American missionary school in Tellipalai, Jaffna, and in 1824, the first Girls’ boarding school in Asia, the Uduvil Girls’ School were established. They translated sections of English medical texts into Tamil and founded a hospital in Manipay in1848. This later became the Green Memorial Hospital. This was the first medical school in the island that used to train doctors in the western medical tradition. By 1848, the American missionaries founded 105 Tamil schools and sixteen English schools. The Batticotta Seminary they built, was considered comparable in rank to the European universities. It closed down later due to restricting access to a few wealthy families and the inability to convert students of Hindu faith to Christianity. It was eventually reopened and became known as the Jaffna College.

The missionary activities and establishment of Protestant missionary schools in Jaffna led to a local Hindu revival movement headed by Arumuga Navalar. This revival was spurred by articles and materials published by the missionaries insulting native religions and practices, specially targeting Lord Murugan. This led to a backlash against the missionaries, with the Revivalist Movement responding to religious conversions by building more Hindu schools. The Catholics in Jaffna also started their own schools. The State too maintained primary and secondary schools. This caused the literacy level of Tamil students rise, providing them with many educational opportunities.

The British colonial rule used this situation to their advantage. They recruited more Tamils to the Public Service not only in Ceylon, but also in India, Malaysia and Singapore. When independence was granted in 1948, Tamils comprising about 15 percent of the population were said to have held approximately 60 percent of the Public Service positions in Sri Lanka. However, can Tamils be blamed for this incongruent situation? On the other hand, the Sinhala leaders saw this as an outcome of a British manipulative strategy to control the Sinhala majority that needed to be redressed. This resulted in a further deterioration of the relationship between the Sinhala and Tamil communities in the island.

To be continued…

[1] https://thediplomat.com/2017/06/mounting-religious-violence-in-sri-lanka/

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sri-lanka-violence-muslims/diplomats-in-sri-lanka-urge-government-action-against-anti-muslim-attacks-idUSKBN18S66P

[3] http://time.com/38179/sri-lanka-tamils-face-torture-violence-sexual-attacks/

[4] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/18/esta-f18.html, and http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/20339

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/08/the-counted-police-killings-2016-young-black-men

[6] Official Language Act (No. 33 of 1956)

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