25 September, 2020

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Sri Lankan Tamils & The International Community

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

I wonder whether the Sri Lankan Tamils are in a unique position compared to other ethnic groups all over the world. They can be assured of the sympathy and support of their fellow Tamils in Tamil Nadu, though the extent of that sympathy and support can vary greatly over a period of time. That fact could mean that although the SL Tamils are a minority in the national context they are in a majority over the Sinhalese in the regional context. This is said to be one of the reasons why the Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex and the Tamils a minority with a majority complex. This is regarded as one of the reasons why the SL Tamil ethnic problem has been so peculiarly recalcitrant to solution.

There are many ethnic groups in adjoining states that are divided, quite often by lines of demarcation that were drawn for the administrative and other convenience of colonial powers. Mutual sympathy and support between them would be quite normal. It has to be expected consequently that when one component of an ethnic group is perceived to be subjected to discriminatory treatment, the other across the border would try to do something to help. In the case of the SL Tamils their perceived ill-treatment causes a fall-out in Tamil Nadu, which then proceeds to exert pressure on New Delhi to take corrective action. There is nothing odd or objectionable about any of this. What makes the SL Tamil ethnic problem unique is a contextual factor: India like any other multiethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country can break up, and Tamil Nadu restiveness over perceived maltreatment of SL Tamils could spawn separatist movements there.

A Sri Lankan Tamil woman holds a portrait of a missing relativeI can think of no other case where an ethnic problem in one country leads, not just to a serious fall-out in a neighboring country, but carries the potential for its dismemberment. I would acknowledge that it does seem a most unlikely eventuality, and indeed at one time it could have seemed quite absurd. I refer to a time when the secularism of Nehru and the other founding fathers of modern India seemed to be ineradicably well-established, and democratic values ensuring fair and equal treatment for the minorities were firmly entrenched in the Indian political psyche. But in recent decades we have witnessed what looks like the triumphal march of the Hindutva ideology. The power of that ideology is shown in many ways. It is only now, belatedly after several months, that Prime Minister Modi has spoken out against the violent intolerance shown towards the Christians. There is now a serious move to change the secular basis of the Indian state. And who could have imagined, just a few years ago, that there would ever be a serious move to build a temple in honor of Nathuram Vinayak Ghodse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi? In other words, the factors on which Indian unity has been forged are being seriously eroded. The theoretically possible break-up of India has of course to be regarded as a worst-case hypothesis, not as something that is around the corner. The important point is that any responsible Government has to bear in mind a worst-case hypothesis when it concerns so primordially important a matter as the unity of its country. India has therefore to give high priority to bringing about an equitable and lasting political solution to the Tamil ethnic problem. It is not something that it can ever afford to ignore.

Certain consequences follow from the argument that I have developed above. One is the sense in which we have to use the term “international community” in relation to the Tamil ethnic problem. The term is often used derisively to mean the rich and powerful countries which use the mechanisms of the UN to impose their will on poor and weak countries. It can also be used, quite legitimately, to signify the members of the UN who constitute a community in the sense that they have all agreed to abide by certain values and norms. But I would say that in relation to the Tamil ethnic problem “international community” has a very restricted meaning: it really refers to India and its ally the US, with others playing not much more than peripheral roles.

Another consequence of my argument is that if not for the Tamil Nadu factor and its impact on the Government in Delhi there would not be a major Tamil ethnic problem, not one that concerns the wider international community. It would be a domestic problem with the Tamils treated as a conquered people – that is to say like dirt – with hope of redress only in the long run. The stark fact is that the SL Tamils cannot by themselves hope to take on the Sri Lankan state militarily with any hope of success, not now and not in the future. That stark fact dictates another consequence: the SL Tamils have no alternative to accepting a tripartite understanding on a political solution reached between India, the SL Government, and the Tamils. The important point in that connection is that India would not want to go too far in agreeing to devolution as that would set a bad precedent for India itself. Another consequence flowing from the argument that I have developed above – specifically from the point that India’s own unity could come to be threatened – is that under certain circumstances India could want to impose a Cyprus-style solution in Sri Lanka. It too is a worst case hypothesis, not something that is around the corner. What we have to bear in mind is that it could be perilous for Sri Lanka to allow the ethnic problem to go unsolved into the indefinite future on the premise that the Tamils cannot by themselves successfully challenge Sri Lankan state power.

It is clear that after the Presidential elections we have come to a new juncture over our ethnic problem: there is now some hope of our moving towards a political solution whereas under President Rajapakse there was none. The international community has signaled this new juncture by the decision to postpone by six months the release of the UNHRC report on war crimes. The decision was announced by the UN human rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, but obviously there were very powerful forces behind that decision, notably the US. According to Al Hussein the decision was made because of “the changing context in Sri Lanka and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report”. The latter reason makes no sense because surely even in September there will be the possibility of the emergence of further important new information. The “changing context” evidently refers to the Government’s decision to hold its own credible investigations into war crimes. But would it be possible to make much headway over that by September? Furthermore, can we really expect the Government to hold wholly credible investigations?

I will conclude this article by raising very briefly a question that seems to be of fundamental importance. Ever since the UN Secretary General moved to set up the Panel of Experts to investigate war crimes – resulting in the Darusman findings – I have supposed that the US and India were behind it in a benign conspiracy to use the war crimes allegations as an instrument to propel the Sri Lankan Government into really moving towards a political solution of the ethnic problem. But that proved to be impossible under President Rajapaksa and consequently the issue of war crimes has gathered a momentum of its own. It will therefore be difficult to jettison it even if the international community becomes convinced that the Sri Lanka Government is really in earnest about a political solution. The case for playing down, diluting, or wholly jettisoning the issue of war crimes seems to me to be very strong. The reason is that there is an incompatibility between moving towards a political solution and holding really credible investigations into war crimes. President Rajapaksa was Acting Defense Minister while the worst war crimes were allegedly being perpetrated, and he and others such as General Sarath Fonseka could be arraigned as war criminals. The Sinhalese cannot be expected to be enthusiastic about people they regard as their heroes and saviors being arraigned in that way. The crucially important point is that really moving towards a political solution requires a climate of mutual accommodation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, and that will be very difficult if alleged war crimes remain a live issue. A jettisoning of the issue will of course be seen by the Tamils as their being let down yet once more by the international community. But their own best interests demand that priority be given to moving towards a political solution above all else.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    1

    This is not an issue of minority discrimination or equal rights….this is an issue of nationhood….

    Is tamils a separate nation with a separate history with a separate boundary? That is the age old question….and the only question!

    • 4
      0

      Izeth Hussain,

      Will you talk like this if 150,000 Muslims were murdered by the Sinhala military, state and the regime during the war?

      You better talk about ISIS than Tamils.

    • 0
      0

      There are 80 million of us, 75 million in a region in South Asia , our will will prevail, you can live as a favored minority nation-a prophesy!

  • 8
    0

    I have read Izeth’s column with interest as he vocalises the issues faced by Sri Lanka’s Muslims, albeit I find that Izeth is often too much of an apologist for Sri Lanka’s chauvinist state. Here he conveys that sentiment to the Tamils. Neither the Tamils nor the Muslims should settle for any solution that does not guarantee their rights in their entirety. Nor for that matter should any other people anywhere else in the world.
    Any solution that comes about by meekly accepting that hundreds of thousands may be murdered by their own state with impunity and no accountability makes a statement about the value of those peoples lives in that state. It cannot be the basis for any sort of solution based on law, justice or equal rights. For Sri Lanka to remain united the Sinhalese will need to recognise the crimes of their leaders from independence onwards. Likewise Tamils and Muslims too will need to recognise what their leaders have done in their name. Without that there is no common understanding of Sri Lanka’s history and without it there can be no understanding of the rights that Tamils and Muslims need to have guuaranteed. The idea of solution based on a unitary constitution to the Sri Lanka problem means that no one would have learned anything from history – i.e. 70 years of mob rule.

    • 3
      3

      Alex,
      “For Sri Lanka to remain united the Sinhalese will need to recognise the crimes of their leaders from independence onwards. Likewise Tamils and Muslims too will need to recognise what their leaders have done in their name”
      A fair statement from Alex. I cannot see Tamils (leadership) ackowledging the barbaric crimes they committed towards Muslims and Sinhalese. Their trump card is playing-the-victim, and that, they will not discard. As Izeth has said the so called International Community (IC) has used the War Crimes card to pressure the Sri Lankan govt into meet certain demands of the Tamils and no more.
      To bring about a settlement the Tamils will be made to drop ridiculous demands of Tamil Nationhood (that never existed), Police powers to NP, and land powers. A constituition based on equal rights to all, with respect for freedom of worship and language rights will be the outcome.
      Failure to accept what is reasonable, the IC is most likely to wash their hands of so called Tamil problem.

      • 1
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        Lal

        “A constituition based on equal rights to all, with respect for freedom of worship and language rights will be the outcome.”

        Are you saying that the foremost place given to Buddhism in the constitution (introduced in 1972 by Dr. Colvin R de Silva, the man who talked about two nation one country) is to be removed giving equal rights to all religions?

        Do you think the Sinhala-Buddhists will agree?

  • 0
    1

    Lal, so you would suggest that Tamils and Muslims simply accept the constitution as it is – a unitary state that allows the next chauvinist government to undo every agreement that is reached today? What guarantees are there that another populist Sinhala president won’t attempt to take power using the same old divisive politics? Isn’t it time to recognise the mistakes of the past and give all people on the island constitutional security?

  • 3
    0

    Izeth Hussain is talking through his hat, or better worded his ‘thoppi’. He should refrain from fuelling the fire.

    ‘This is said to be one of the reasons why the Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex and the Tamils a minority with a majority complex’, he says. And his ‘this’ is bunkum.

    Fellow Tamils in Tamil Nadu are themselves a minority of India. What makes Izeth Hussain to ‘equate’ Tamil Nadu to a country or nation. This is immoral and offensive.

    Muslim population stands at 2.08 billion, whereas Tamils are around 74 million, in the world. Does that permit me to argue that Muslims have a majority complex.

    Do not drag Tamils into your irrational thinking.

    • 4
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      Nathan

      “Tamil ethnic problem” writes Izeth Hussain?

      Isn’t it a Sinhala/Buddhist problem which has been imposed on rest of the people?

    • 0
      0

      Izeth Hussain,

      The Sinhalese hate your community much more than the Tamils. Unlike any other community in Sri Lanka, you people are masters in the art of flipping your hat (thoppi). What you should remember is that, both Sinhalese and Tamils are well aware of your age old/legendary hat flipping gimmick, you cannot entertain them anymore.

  • 0
    0

    Izeth cautions India about repercussions to that nation’s unity should Ealam become a reality.

    Another perspective is that the Sri Lankan Tamil secessionism is a by-product of Tamil secessionism from the union of India after independence. The Gandhi is said to have put a stop to that, I believe in the sixties by making it a crime to advocate separation in their constitution. After that law passed, according to this perspective, the movement for a separate Tamilian country moved across the Adams Bridge to Northern Sri Lanka.

    I wonder if the reason why those who advocate war crimes charges against the SLA and the Rajapakse administration do not call for such against the LTTE and other Tamil terrorist groups.

    Is it is because they believe once the SLA and the former government has been judged to have committed war crimes, then the UN would call for a referendum for the creation of Ealam? Where would that leave the Tamil-speaking Muslims?

    • 3
      1

      sinhalese buddhist

      “The Gandhi is said to have put a stop to that, I believe in the sixties by making it a crime to advocate separation in their constitution.”

      If India was worried about separatism why did it allow Madras state to be renamed as Tamil Nadu, meaning “Tamil Country” in “1969”?

      Think about it, difficult still you can try.

  • 1
    0

    We cannot expect more from people like this author who comes only for harvest !!

  • 1
    0

    My dear friends

    I am at present working in Mumbai and would like to share my impression.

    Tamils in India is less than aproximately 10%, rest of the community does not care about tamil issue and Tamil nado state has nearly any say. for direction of goverment policy. Case would have been totaly different it was Hindi people being treated differently in Sri Lanka. Singelease people have the sympathies of Indian except our great hero of Sri Lanka Mr. Rajapakse going to bed with Chinease goverment. Even in the Independence day speach the counsler general stated Singelease people had connection to Gujarat people…..

    I also do not think India will disintegrate, it has become stronger and we need to understand the organisational culture of India from Rajput to working class.

    Mr. Modi is famous in India because of change in political culture, the racial issue is always part of socity but this does not glue the country as india. You will see the election result in Delhi as a direct result of votes for relious tolance and corruption.

    Tamils problem is important to solve as we need to prove our self that we are a more matured socity. If in case tamil nado desolves as seperate country then Sri Lanka has a real worry, This is the core issue Why problem needs to be solved before it escalates in to India. This is well known to Indian goverment and matured politicians in Sri Lanka.

    The privious goverment did not solve it but keeping it locked so that when India gets involved the politicians will be Long gone and pass the problem to our future generations.

  • 0
    0

    ” …can we really expect the Government to hold wholly credible investigations?”

    Thank you for admitting that any internal investigation will be a joke and will be held only to hide the war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians. So, the UN HRC, US, UK and India are giving the new government space to hide the war crimes while shelving the international war crimes report. And yet the likes of DJ and Co. are upset.

  • 0
    0

    The muslim population of the world has been exaggerated by many people but it has never been quoted as 2.08 billion. At best the world muslim population is about 1.5 billion or 22% of the world population and no more than that. Sunni muslims make up approximately 75% and Shia make about 25% of the total muslim population.

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