By Michael Roberts –
Way back in the 1960s the scholar Sinnappah Arasaratnam noted that in Sri Lanka two (communal) extremisms were feeding off each other and thereby sharpening conflict (1967, 1974 & 1979). This was, of course, just one factor contributing to a developing crisis that requires a careful analysis that identifies the multiple factors aggravating division. The tragic tale remains true today: Sinhalese and Tamil extremists continue to stir the pot and gain vigour by attacking each other (and others too).
The vehemence is all the greater because the vanguard of such fervour resides among migrants in Western lands who are encouraged by the freedom of the internet to ride the waves of communication with slander and sarcasm as their principal weapons. Among the Sri Lankan Tamils of the diaspora, of course, this venom has been grounded in the bitter experiences that induced so many to leave Sri Lanka in the last three decades of the 20th century.
Via familial stories as well as the vast propaganda machinery built up by the LTTE over the last 25 years this fervour has been transmitted to some of the second/third generation migrants brought up in these lands. As with so many Tamils living in Sri Lanka in the 1990s and 2000s Velupillai Pirapāharan, the talaivar of Thamilīlam, was more or less a deity among these migrant peoples. In fact, he was likened to a Sun God (Jeyaraj 2009).
During the halcyon days of the LTTE this worship was expressed on his birthday 26th November – a day that happened to precede an even more important moment of Tamil Tiger bonding, Māvīrar Nāl celebrated every 27th November to pay homage to the Tiger dead and re-affirm the peoples’ commitment to the goal of Eelam (Schalk 2003; Roberts 2009; Natali 2008).
The demise of Pirapāharan on 18th May 2009 has not dented this worship of the Sun God or the commitment to the liberation struggle among many Tamils in the island and abroad. The 18th May has now been added to the ritual calendar of Thamilīlam as “Genocide Day,” with protest events being organized by the faithful in many cities in the West.
Likewise, conventional Saivite ceremonies of goodwill and sustenance for Pirapāharan are still conducted in some places in Sri Lanka and abroad to bestow blessings on his life’s journey on 26th November every year. A large Tamil gathering at Wembley in London to mark Pirapāharan’s greatness by commemorating his birthday (captured on camera by a Sinhalese migrant) recently raised a minor storm among Sinhalese of the internet communication chain, adding to the fuel planted by the success of the Sri Lankan Tamil networks in persuading USA, the West and the UN bureaucracy to press war crimes charges against the government of Sri Lanka.
However, it is the commemoration of Heroes’ Day on the 27h November every year in many cities and towns in the West that marks the commitment of Sri Lankan Tamils (and other supporters) to the cause of an independent Tamil state of Thamilīlam. These gatherings in 2015 were not confined to London and Toronto, but seem to have been mounted in numerous cities – for instance from Fribourg in Switzerland to Oslo in Norway. Such moments of coordinated activity must surely sustain the fervour displayed on the streets of so many cities in the West in March-April-May 2009 as the LTTE slid to comprehensive military defeat.
In the course of researches into the last stages of the war through studies of the Wikileaks exposure of the US ambassador’s dispatches to Washington, I perceived a chance process which may have contributed to the success of Tamil agitation in penetrating official US thinking in 2009. In my surmise, logically, similar processes could be occurring now as we speak. My write-up was placed in the Colombo Telegraph on the 9th December 2015. As expected, it drew the ire of the many piranhas (in this instance SL Tamil) who inhabit the air waves.
However, one of these sniper attacks by one “Thanga” on the 11th December 2015 was, as Neville Jayaweera intimated, carefully crafted and quite clever. Thanga challenges my characterization of the LTTE as “fascist” and insists that the LTTE was a party of freedom fighters and therefore remains popular among Tamils unlike Hitler and Mussolini in their countries.
“The LTTE was immensely popular with the masses. …. the armed struggle was a direct result of state violence inflicted on Thamils ever since independence. Chandrika Kumaratunga put it succinctly when she said Prabhakaran is the product of Sinhala racism. One cannot create a fighting force from thin air. Concrete socio-political-economic conditions must exist.”
Thanga’s neat sound-bites and part-truths do not a comprehensive argument make. He is guilty of gross oversimplification. It is entirely feasible for a freedom fighter movement to be fascist in structure and organizational form. The dead bodies of so many Tamil parliamentarians gunned down by the Tigers and the heaps of TELO and EPRLF dead are grotesque testimony to Pirapāharan’s killer mentality (Hoole 2001). As a reporter for the Economist indicated, Pirapāharan was “a textbook fascist who went on to murder his Tamil rivals, inspire love and terror among his followers and monopolise the Tamil nationalist cause.”
Alas, this has not dimmed his popularity both within Thamilīlam and in some drawing rooms in Colombo and in many drawing rooms of the diaspora. On this count I do not question Thanga. Pirapāharan remains venerated today.
But Thanga also requires a little history lesson. With Hitler and Mussolini after 1944/45, the German and Italian peoples had no choice: occupying armies sat astride their countries for decades; while the Allies, quite intelligently, deployed the Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany and Europe in ways which have enabled Germany today to become the headmistress of the European Union. The US Army had contingents at strategic sites in West Germany, including Heidelberg when I resided there for spells in 1976 and 1987.
But it is with reference to Sri Lankan history in the period 1948 to 1983 that Thanga requires a history caning. Part-truths do not a story make, the more so when — as I indicated as the outset – a complex configuration of forces sharpened the pre-existing ethnic divide to a point of bitter conflict.
The ethnic (also called “communal”) differentiation between Sinhalese and SL Tamils in Sri Lanka has been long-standing and grounded in cultural practices as much as political history. What sharpened the divisions in the independence era was the process of democratic politics from 1948-1970 within (A) a particular political structure and (B) the island’s peculiar demographic configuration (Roberts 1978; Wilson 1975).
Point A refers to the Westminster system of parliamentary elections based on first-past-the post electoral constituencies set up (in good faith but with disastrous results) by the Soulbury Constitution. Given the specific distribution of ethnic groups in the island, the political parties discovered over the decade 1956-1960s that a small swing in votes led to a landslide victory for either the SLFP or the UNP. Robert Kearney’s studies reveal this aspect quite clearly (1967 & 1973). There was a structural disincentive for anyone to promote compromise politics across the ethnic divide (Roberts 1978). That is why the main Leftist parties abandoned their principled support for “parity of status for both languages” and joined Mrs. Bandaranaike’s alliance in 1964. In blaming the demagogy of her father and mother (plus the UNP) Chandrika Bandaranaike is oversimplifying. The failures were system induced.
Yes, Sinhala prejudices, the political demagogues and the work of prejudiced bureaucrats after the Sinhala Only Act was in place also contributed to the polarization. However, Sinhala politicians were not the only demagogues (as Neville Jayaweera has clarified in his biography — 2014). The Tamil politicians were not without their prejudices and also indulged in demagogic activity. The Tamil intelligentsia also practiced considerable dissimulation by proposing that the whole of the Eastern Province was part of their “traditional homelands.” As early as the 19th December 1949 this specific dishonesty was embedded in the manifesto of the “Federal Freedom Party of the Tamil-speaking People of Ceylon” (ITAK 1949). This particular Tamil argument can be interpreted as a maximization claim of the sort seen in the history of Japanese and German fascism too – a form of “lebensraum” that forcibly embraced the Sri Lankan Muslims as Tamil.
I do not expect Thanga to take kindly to this brief history lesson. My schoolmaster tones will him repel. Besides, he is hardcore Tiger and venerates Pirapāharan. In brief, he is probably incorrigible. That fact is a pointer to the vast network of support and tutelage to the memory of Pirapāharan and his Tigers that exists among the Sri Lankan Tamil peoples all over the world today. This is the most significant contention that I leave for readers to ponder. In such a milieu, the positions of moderate Tamils like David Jeyaraj and Rajan Hoole will, as Thanga affirms, carry little weight among the Tamil masses. Democratic politics trumps sensibility and produces, well, Trumps – Donald Trumps of the Sri Lankan Tamil variety.
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Arasaratnam, Sinnappah 1979 “Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Tamils,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga, pp. 500-19.
Chandrakanthan, A. J. V. 2000. “Eelam Tamil Nationalism: An Inside View.” Pp. 157–175 in Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson. London: Hurst and Company.
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ITAK 1949 “Inaugural Meeting of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, Colombo, 18December 1949… with Presidential Address by SJV Chelvanayakam,” in M. Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 273-92.
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Roberts, Michael 2012 “Velupillai Pirapaharan: VEERA MARANAM.” Thuppahi’s Blog, 26 November. http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/velupillai-pirapaharan-veera-maranam.
Footnotes & Citations
 I have seen photographs of ceremonies involving pandals or a circle of pots in his honour held in places in Thamililam and the north of Sri Lanka during the 1990s and 2000s but will need to search for them.
 Apart from the verdict of Benjamin Bavinck on the basis of his life in the Jaffna Peninsula from 1994-2001, note that the Economist concluded that the Leader of the LTTE was a “textbook fascist” (see main text and ‘Victory for the Tiger Slayer,” 28 January 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/15393468
 Also see the following sources:
 See ‘Victory for the Tiger Slayer,” 28 January 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/15393468
 I benefited from personal interaction with Kearney during his visits to Sri Lanka where on one or two occasions he presented a paper before the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya. This seminar series and personal interaction with such personnel as AJ Wilson. KM de Silva, Shelton Kodikara, Gerald Peiris and other colleagues at Peradeniya helped me sharpen my analytical skills… and provided the grounding for my arguments in “Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka & Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, 1978 – an article drafted in Germany in 1976 where I forecast the sharpening of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict to a situation similar to Cyprus and Lebanon [partially wrong—it has been more severe].