The war between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka was over on 19th May’2009, leaving unimaginable devastation and a terrible human tragedy in its wake. The pursuit of an independent Tamil Eelam– an illusion- initially floated by the democratic political leadership of the Tamils, thereafter passionately pursued by various militant-terrorist groups, including the LTTE and finally carried forward in a highly organized, but fatally flawed manner by the LTTE, had proved to be just what it was- just a terrible illusion!
What it has cost the Sri Lanka in terms of financial, development, human resource, political and institutional degradation, quality of governance and abandonment of ethical norms, has not become a subject of in-depth studies as I had expected. The financial and social cost to the Tamils for pursuing or being compelled to pursue the illusion of Eelam, will never be known in its true dimensions, unless there are such scientific studies. Politically motivated speculations, accusations and demands have to yield to objective and scientific studies. The government and the academics in this country stand indicted on this score.
The destruction wrought on Tamil society in the north and east of the Island, in social terms by the LTTE, independent of the ravages of war, are so deep and wide that it will be almost impossible to describe accurately or quantify in a reliable manner. The state role in the war has no doubt made a bad situation worse. However, this could be considered largely unavoidable in the circumstances. It was a brutal and ferocious war. The bad chicken laid an egg, which hatched into an equally bad chicken! The badness of the chickens multiplied with time, making it very difficult to identify which was worse.
Within the approximately four years since the end of the war, the physical scars in terms of damaged and destroyed infra-structure have almost disappeared, although pockets of damage are yet visible. The physical damages in terms of the human body remain yet problems, and have not received the attention they should have. While the physical injuries may heal faster and be overcome, Tamils in particular have to find ways to deal with thousands of handicapped and disabled over several decades. The orphans, widows, large number of women-headed households and the ex-female LTTE cadres rejected by the Tamil society are yet a social problem of immense proportions. The psychological scars left on the people will take generations to heal. However, the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, cannot be seen anywhere better than in the Vanni.
This destruction also involved not only the history of individuals and families, but the efforts of generations of Tamil intellectuals. Further, the intellectual, spiritual, mystical and cultural traditions in the north and east that had evolved over thousands of years of Tamil history, were trashed, trampled and destroyed. The deliberate cultivation and enabling of the dregs of Tamil society by the LTTE has also left the unique value system of the Tamils, in tatters. These losses can never be fully regained. The people can be seen dealing with their problems in their own way. The strong faith they yet have in their religions is contributing much to this healing process. The belief system centering on the principles of Karma, is no doubt a big blessing.
The total destruction of the caste system has been cited as a benefit accruing from the decades that were dominated by the Tamil militants and the LTTE. However, while the caste consciousness is subdued, it has not disappeared. The caste structure is slowly, but steadily being replaced by a class structure based on affluence. The emigration and displacement of the standard bearers of the Tamil culture and identity – the middle and upper classes- has compounded the damage to social norms and structures. The Tamils in the north and east may have become largely a less caste conscious society, but in the process they have also become a society lacking in ‘Class’ (high quality). The failure of those who had drifted towards the south in the war years and at least the older sections of the Tamil Diaspora, to return to the north and east, have hindered the process of societal healing and restoring the status quo ante. This may be also a blessing in disguise, as new social norms and structures, more attuned to the times will evolve, though rather slowly.
Although I expected the Tamils of the north and east may need several decades to recover and become a normal people, the process has been much faster than expected. I had expected the brain-washing that was part of creating the illusion of Tamil Eelam will be the most difficult to overcome. But it has been otherwise. While a significant number of Tamils were disgusted with the LTTE and the other militants, now masquerading as democratic political groups, the illusion of Tamil Eelam had become part of the mental makeup of most Tamils born since the 1960s. Migrations and bitter experiences have undermined this mindset considerably in the north and east. It is a mindset yet haunting the Diaspora more than the local Tamils.
Many Tamils yet continue to harbour doubts as to whether the Sinhala polity can be trusted to play fair by them and accept their linguistic and cultural differences as part of the Sri Lankan mosaic. The hardest task for Sri Lanka will be to win the trust and confidence of the Tamils. Tragically, this was not recognized as an important pillar of the government’s policy after the war. Although the state has done much to restore infra-structure and rehabilitate the IDPs and the LTTE cadres, since the war ended, and these are much appreciated by the Tamils it has failed to recognize the changes in the local Tamil psyche over the past four years and has not done what was needed to win their trust and confidence. A paranoid security consciousness is undoubtedly a barrier to taking simple measures to win over hearts and minds of the Tamils, in the short haul.
On the other hand, the Sinhala polity has its own fears of Tamil intentions for the future. This has not dissipated. The Sri Lankan armed forced fought a hard and costly battle to overcome the LTTE- a formidable enemy- much to the delight of most Sinhalese. While a majority of Sinhalese harbours no malice against the Tamils and accepts them as fellow citizens of equal standing, every single Sinhalese to the last man and women, is against the concept of a separate state for the Tamils. For years most Tamils will be considered ‘Closet Tigers’ and separatists by the Sinhala polity. This is natural as the Sinhalese were also the victims of Sinhala extremist propaganda and the LTTE propaganda and terror tactics. The Tamil Diaspora and the Tamil political formations have not done enough to allay these fears in the post-war years and have deliberately kept the embers live, with their words and actions.
While there were divisions among the Tamils on the question of Eelam, there was unanimity among the Sinhalese against the very thought of the Island being split asunder. The civil war fought over three decades and won on the battle front on behalf of largely the Sinhalese by the Sri Lankan armed forces (the potential gains for the Tamils are incidental), will make it very difficult for the Sinhala polity to view any exercise at devolution of political power without suspicion that it is an alternate path to a separate state for the Tamils. This paranoia has to be recognized by the Tamils, as an unavoidable reality. There will also be many in the Sinhala political and the Buddhist religious establishment who will nurture and validate these fears, either through ignorance, short sightedness, malice or political expediency. We are seeing more of such reactions in the present point in time. The shortsighted or likely deliberate unwillingness to offer acceptable political solutions to the Tamil problem will haunt this country for a long time. A window of opportunity was no doubt missed. This is unpardonable. Statesmanship was expected from Mahinda Rajapakse and he preferred being a cheap politician..
Tamil politicians of the past and present, and the Tamil militant movements- I should now say of the past- including the LTTE, failed to understand the deep seated Sinhala attachment to the concept of ‘ Sinhala Dwipa’ ( The ‘Sinhala Theevu’ of Bharathiar). The ‘Sinhala Dwipa’ is a concept that is at the core of the Sinhala psyche. It involves the attachment of a people, speaking a language spoken nowhere else, to the land they consider special because of its association with Lord Buddha. We can debate ad-infinitum whether the association with Lord Buddha is fact or fiction and whether the Sinhala language is as unique as believed, but it will make no difference to what the people believe.
The concept of ‘Eelam’ is no different, although it was hijacked by the Tamil politicians and militants, to define an unrealizable illusion. I remember the elders of Jaffna at one time believed in a similar concept of special identity and uniqueness, when confronted with Indian (mainly South Indian) influences. ‘Vaitru Valiyai Nambinalum, Vadakathayanai Nambathey’ (‘Even if you trust a stomach ache, do not trust the northerner’) was their constant refrain. Although there were significant linguistic, religious and cultural affinities, there was deep felt aversion to being overwhelmed by South India (north of Jaffna) by most Jaffna Tamils. Erudite Tamils in Tamil Nadu also recognized the antiquity and quality of Tamil spoken in the north and east of Sri Lanka, and the uniqueness of Sri Lankan Tamils. I also recall an elderly school principal describing the Tamils of recent Indian origin who had come to Jaffna as refugees after the 1977 riots as the ‘Fifth Column’. This unique identity concept believed in by most Tamils here, although sharing a language, religion and some aspects of culture with the Tamils of Tamil Nadu, has been substantially blurred by the repeated attempts to draw in Tamil Nadu to play a role in our political problems. I think this has given a new lease of life to the Sinhala minority complex in terms of Tamil Nadu.
The association of Lanka with the Ramayana and Ravana with Saivaism was another dimension in the Tamil sense of belonging to the Island. The location of four of the five (Pancha Easwarams) ancient and revered Saivite temples in Sri Lanka and the presence of the ancient Murugan temple in jungles of Kataragama supported Tamil beliefs. The fifth Easwaram in Dondra in the South does not any longer exist. The Tamils who believe Sri Lanka is their land and has been their home for thousands of years, consider they are also unique and have a special affinity now for the parts of the Island they inhabit. This is the ‘Eelam’ that is mentioned in the Sangam poetry, is part of Tamil lore and is at the core of their passions.
The concepts of ‘Sinhala Dwipa’ and ‘Eelam’ are similar and define a passion for an Island by two groups of people who are closely related and speaking two different languages that are also closely related in many ways. Subramaniya Bharathy – a Tamil poet of great stature from South India– had no qualms about calling the Island ‘Sinhala Theevu’ and dream of not only constructing a bridge over Palk strait but also reconstructing the Adam’s bridge to form a highway ( “Sinhala Theevinukore Paalam Amaipoem , Sethuvai Meduruthi Veethi Samaipoem”) to Sri Lanka. Both the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka, having lived on a small island close to giant India, had obviously developed a sense of uniqueness and a degree of anti-Indianism, to protect their culture and way of life. The overwhelming Sinhala identity of the island was never in dispute. Once again the Sinhala polity has been quite irrational in not recognizing this. The Sri Lankan government has miserably failed to recognize this entrenched and historically valid belief, in the aftermath of the bitter war. This is unfortunate and sad.
The Sinhala politicians and influential elements in the Sinhala polity had failed to understand the passion the majority of Sri Lankan Tamils had for their Island and thoughtlessly and sometimes maliciously hurt and insulted these Tamils to their very core, by asking them to go back to India, where they were accused of having come. What should have been a struggle or even war for the rights and place of Tamils within Sri Lanka was unfortunately and thoughtlessly permitted to become struggle/ war for a separate state by the Tamil leadership of the day. The short sightedness of the Tamil politicians of yore in seeding the concept of an independent Tamil state within the Island and firing the imagination of disgruntled and immature youth in its pursuit was one of the tragedies of Sri Lankan history. This has not been yet recognized as a failure and grievous mistake by Tamil politicians even today. The continued allusion to an Eelam even as part of political rhetoric or ploy should be eschewed by Tamil political formations, if reasonable alternate solutions are to be pursued.
The failures of the Sri Lankan Sinhala leadership to sense the direction in which the Tamil struggle was evolving and take wise political decisions to remove the root causes, was a further tragedy. The wise steps Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in India took to politically diffuse the separatist movement in the Madras state (now Tamil Nadu), is an example the Sri Lankan governments should have followed. Pride, prejudice and sheer stupidity came together among both the Sinhalese and Tamils to foment an unnecessary, costly and beastly war that has almost destroyed the Tamils as a people and left the Sinhalese severely diminished in terms of their humanity and political maturity. I do not think we have learned our lessons yet.
It should at least be recognized now the time has come for a paradigm shift in the thoughts, social arrangements and political process among the peoples of Sri Lanka. The war that ended four years back has only proved how stupid we have been. Our failure to take many remedial actions, shows that we yet choose to be stupid people. In a narrow sense an unnecessary war has been both lost and won by the citizens of the same country! Whether wars should have been fought over the issues under dispute, will be viewed with much distaste by future generations? Our intelligence and wisdom are in question. In a broader sense the war itself was a loss for all peoples in Sri Lanka. If the last war and the attendant misery that it has entailed have not jolted us into rational thinking and pragmatic reactions, we are doomed as a nation.
Recognition and enforcement of the right of Tamils to be Tamils and Sri Lankan citizens of equal status should be the foundation on which the future Sri Lanka is built. This concept should apply to every other community in Sri Lanka. The voice of the majority of citizens, and not only the voice of the majority among the Sinhalese, should be heard in the corridors of power. What is good for all Sri Lankans should be the concern of the government and not exclusively what is good for the Sinhalese, because they are a numerical majority with greater influence on electing politicians to office. The structures of state should be insulated from the short term thinking, partisan attitudes and paranoia of governments in power. In Sri Lanka this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred.
Power should be devolved on the existing or modified provincial basis, for the people in different areas of the country to manage their internal affairs. There should also be mechanisms to share powers at the centre. Within the frame work of a united and if necessary unitary Sri Lanka, every citizen should be equal and should be equally protected, wherever he or she may choose to live. The right of every individual or community to be what they are and live according to what they believe must be respected within the boundaries of just law. Any activity that impinges on the rights of any one citizen or a community of citizens should be a criminal offence punishable to the utmost extent possible. Every citizen should have the right to live wherever he/she wishes in the Island, in peace and security. The rule of law should guarantee the rights of every citizen in the Island and protect them from the ravages of political expediency, communal or religious extremism, security force excesses and bad governance.
The Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others in Sri Lanka and the Diaspora should come together in our millions, to lend our hearts and souls to reconciliation on a national scale. The government should not be held solely responsible for this task. It has let us down badly in the past four years and it is time we take the lead. This would heal our wounds faster than anything else would. The yet lukewarm reconciliation process is a tragedy that should activate us to come together to become Sri Lankans in the true sense of the word. Those who have backed the war from both sides of the national divide- whether Sinhalese or Tamil- are aware of the misery they have caused. They cannot continue to pretend otherwise. The war-affected Tamils and the Sinhalese, albeit mostly soldiers, have become familiar with each other over the past four years. They are learning each other’s languages and understanding the differences and similarities in their cultures. They are not estranged anymore. This new relationship should be recognized, fostered and capitalized.
The government should be forthright with the people and declare its intentions on political solutions and its contours. The opportune time to carry out the necessary political reforms in Sri Lanka was in the immediate aftermath of the war. The government dithering has already cost this country much. The minorities should be politically empowered and given a role to play in national affairs. The Tamils in particular have to be won to the cause of a united Sri Lanka. The Tamils may be down, but their aspirations yet remain valid. This would be the best insurance the nation could have against future insurgencies. The Tamils have to be trusted for them to become trusting. Tamils have not yet been given the time, space and the choices to evolve a new political leadership committed to work for their current and future needs, within a united Sri Lanka. Old politics have returned, encouraged by the foolishness of the government and this has ominous implications.
Tamils on the other hand have to concentrate their efforts primarily towards recovery as a people, recovery of their economy and re-building their social fabric. This cannot be done without the support of the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan government. Tamils cannot behave like the proverbial street dog that had been badly abused in the past, and as a result whines and begins to run with its tail tucked between its legs every time someone raises his hands innocently (akin to Pavlov’s reflex)! Tamils should stop seeing a ghost behind every shadow and being on the defensive. Tamils should also not continue to harp on past grievances and complain about what they perceive as problems unique to themselves. Tamils have to learn to look around and see whether other Sri Lankans- Sinhalese, Muslims and others- share the same problems. Tamils have to regain their confidence and commit ourselves to a united Sri Lanka, without any reservations.
Tamils have to regain their place as an important component of the Sri Lankan mosaic. Tamil while learning their Tamil better, have to also learn Sinhalese and English. Tamils have to regain their culture, while learning about the cultures around them. Tamils have to become an outgoing people, instead of being insular and struck within their shells. Tamils have to stop being eternal complainers and find solutions to their problems from within. Tamils have to assert ourselves as a force for progress and democracy within Sri Lanka. Tamils need not become a supine people as a result. They should stand up fearlessly for their rights when justified. Tamils in the Diaspora should return and participate in the reconciliation process, without continuing to encourage the re-emergence of a past that has been devastating to their compatriots and relatives living in Sri Lanka. Tamils have the golden opportunity now to become a better people with a new vision.
Tamils have to also recognize they are not a homogenous people. The days of domination by the Jaffna Tamils over other Tamils are gone forever. The needs of the Jaffna Tamils are not the same as those of Tamils living in other parts of Sri Lanka. There are Jaffna Tamils, Vanni Tamils, Mannar Tamils, Batticaloa Tamils, Trincomalee Tamils, Amparai Tamils, Colombo Tamils, West coast Tamils (now being classified as Mukkuwar by some in the Sri Lankan government) and Hill Country Tamils. There are also different kinds of Tamils within Jaffna. Each with different needs and different priorities, but linked by a common language. The needs of the Muslims, who speak Tamil and live amongst the Tamils, are also different. Tamils have to accept the diversity amongst them and the fact that they have different aspirations in terms of their geographical dispersion. This is also true of other communities. Tamils have to find a unity in their diversity, while Sri Lanka as a nation should also strive to find the unity amongst its diversity. This has not yet happened in post-war Sri Lanka and the government and the Tamil political parties have to share responsibility for this failure.
The concept of the north-east merger was never viable and has been rendered obsolete. The north and east will remain separate and it will be futile and foolish to demand a merger. The Tamils in the east do not need it and do not want it. The Tamils have to come forward to participate in national politics and seek membership in the national parties of their choice. Tamils have to strive to become national leaders acceptable to the Sinhalese and other peoples in Sri Lanka. Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka should be able to produce their own Narasimha Raos and Manmohan Singhs, as the minorities in India have. We have a long way to walk to achieve this. It is not going to be easy, but it has to happen.
The Sinhalese on the other hand should learn to treat the minorities, as a people who have been entrusted to their care. The Sinhalese should not view the minorities as enemies, competitors and usurpers. The minorities do not need special favours and dispensations. What they need is to be treated equally and be provided the opportunity to play in a fair game. How well the minorities do in Sri Lanka, will be a reflection on the greatness of the Sinhala people and the religion they practice –Buddhism. Sinhala politicians should begin to reflect the true nature of their people. Buddhist monks should reflect the essence of the teachings of Lord Buddha, in their words and deeds. They should be a force for unity rather than be foster fathers of divisiveness.
All Sinhalese should learn Tamil and begin to interact with the Tamils and Muslims living amongst them. The Sinhalese should visit the north and east in greater numbers to understand the Tamils, and their way of life, and identify their concerns. Sinhalese should begin to learn they share much in common with the Tamils. The Sinhalese should stretch a hand of friendship towards the Tamils. Every positive gesture and word from the Sinhalese, however small, will go a long way in healing our national wounds. What Sri Lanka has to become is largely in the hands of the Sinhalese and it is up to them to shoulder their responsibility towards our common mother land and the other people, who are also her children. The right of being a majority in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious country like ours also involves the need to be inclusive, tolerant, considerate and magnanimous towards the minorities.
“ ONDRU PATTAAL UNDU VALLVEY,
OTTRUMAI NEENGIL ANAIVARUKUM THAALVEY”- (Tamil)
“ United we will prosper, divided we will all suffer” (translation)
*Dr. Rajasingham Narendran is a Veterinarian who holds a Ph.D from the University of Guelph , Ontario, Canada in Applied Physiology and Endocrinology. Has served as an Assistant Lecturer and Lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Research Associate at the University of Guelph and Associate Professor at the King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, he has served for many years as a Senior Executive in the food industry in Saudi Arabia. He is currently retired, lives in Sri Lanka and takes on occasional consultancy assignments in Saudi Arabia. He is also freelance writer on Sri Lankan issues.