27 November, 2022


Tamil National Question & Tamil Insurgency In Sri Lanka

By Imtiyaz Razak –

Prof. Imtiyaz Razak

On May 17, 2009 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) admitted the defeat in the war against the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lanka security forces and vowed to silence guns. In May 18, Sri Lanka security forces announced that the LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, who led the three decades old violent campaign to build ethnic nation for the Tamils who predominantly live in the Northern and Eastern territories of the island of Sri Lanka, was killed by Sri Lanka’s military in a firefight that signaled the effective end to one of Asia’s longest-running military conflicts. The territory formerly controlled by the LTTE have been brought under the control of the government since the middle of 2009 and then government led by former President Mahinda Rajapakshe is claiming that it is making all efforts to rebuild the war affected Northern region where a large majority of ethnic Tamils and minority Muslims live. This short article would deal with the roots of the Tamil insurgency. It would also attempt to provide brief overview about the growth and demise of the Tamil insurgency led by the LTTE. It would finally suggest some solution to the Tamil national question since no solution is being proposed by the current government, which promised solution during the election campaign. .

The history of Sri Lanka’s Tamil conflict or roots of the Tamil insurgency can be identified from the time of colonial period.Three regional sovereign kingdoms were existed in the country, when the Portuguese, the first of the Western colonialists arrived on the shores of Ceylon in 1505. One of these was the independent Tamil Kingdom located on the northern Jaffna peninsula of the same name. Two were Sinhalese with their capitals at Kotte, and at Kandy in the central hill country. The northern Tamil Kingdom had been in existence since the early thirteenth century. When the Portuguese defeated Tamil kingdom then administered by Cankili II, the last Tamil King, in battle and formally annexed the Jaffna Kingdom in 1619. After the Portuguese influence left from the island, the Dutch replaced the Portuguese occupied places until their departure. The British, who displaced the Dutch in 1831 unified the island and thus brought the Jaffna Kingdom under the single.

administration along with the Sinhala kingdoms. The Jaffna centered Tamil Kingdom neither consulted by the British nor offered an alternative power-sharing with the Sinhalese. Problems arose when the British favored the Tamils and gave some cultural concessions to the Tamil region such as building top English medium schools in the Tamil dominated Jaffna district and allied with elites of the Tamils to help in colonial administration. When independence came in 1948, the Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, who thought that they were being marginalized and found itself in a precarious position, as the majority group sought to gain economic power. The leaders of the Sinhalese seized power from the British administrators and adopted pro-Sinhala policies in order to redress the grievances of the majority community-Sinhalese.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike laid the first foundation for such an ethnicization of politics by introducing the Sinhala-Only language policy in the 1950’s. Repeatedly over the next four decades, Sinhala politicians employed the same ethnic tricks to capture a large share of the Sinhalese votes. Then an educational standardization policy in 1972 allowed Sinhalese students to enter Science and Medicine schools with lower scores than the Tamil students. The Constitution of 1972 conferred a special status on Buddhism in both the state and public sectors. Communal riots in 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977 and 1983 in which Tamils were killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless were carefully designed by the Sinhala elites eventually radicalized the Tamils who consider themselves as a distinct nation and subsequently produced Tamil militants, notably the LTTE (in 1976), a secessionist Tamil guerrilla movement which set the stage for violent Tamil retaliation and efforts to secede.

It is the fact the LTTE’s three decades old struggle for an independent Tamil state effectively challenged the state policies over the Tamils. It also attracted reasonable global support from the Tamil Diaspora as well as some quarters of the Western governments and policy makers. However, the global political developments of the post September 11 terrorist attacks had radically contributed to the erosion of global sympathy for the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political class had succeeded in portraying the Tamil struggle as mere terrorist campaign and advantageously employed the global war on terrorism for its own counter insurgency activities and war against the LTTE.

The LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009. The island of Sri Lanka has entered into a new phase and political condition was made to seek a meaningful reconciliation with the Tamils and other minorities to take the island into a post-conflict period. There were wave of expectations that Sri Lanka’sBuddhist dominated government would seek political compromise and settlements with the Tamil leaders. The questions therefore are; will the current government take any meaningful measures to find a solution through power-sharing democracy? Will the collapse of violent resistant by the LTTE further strengthen the hands of the Sinhala extremists who aspire to build Sinhalese only Sri Lanka? Or will it further alienate the minorities of Sri Lanka?

What Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka suggests is that politicization of ethnic distinctions by major political parties has weakened democracy and its institutions and thus has fueled an ethnic violence and conflict. Democratic institutions in Sri Lanka need to be strengthened. Political autonomy and power-sharing can help the Tamils to increase their level of trust in the state and it institutions. In other words, tensions among groups can be significantly reduced in Sri Lanka if the Sinhala political class genuinely seeks political compromise with the Tamil polity and other minorities through a feasible political solution that would go beyond the current British imposed unitary structure. If there is a resistance to offer power sharing, the other option is partition which can possibly offer social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups. social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups.

Further Reading

Imtiyaz, A.R.M. & Stavis, Ben “ Ethno-Political Conflict in Sri Lanka” The Journal of Third World Studies (v. 25/2, 2008)

Silva K.M.De. Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998).

Votta, Neil De. Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

*Professor A.R.M. Imtiyaz taught in universities in Sri Lanka (South Eastern University) and China (Nanjing University). He is attached to Asian Studies, and Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia. Currently, he is in China for his research on Hui Muslims. His research studies cover two major aspects—the symbolic politics of elites and politicization of ethnic differences, especially in Sri Lanka. His scholarly pursuits have led to publications at various international venues, including the Journal of Asian and African Studies (JAAS), the Journal of South Asia (JAS), the Journal of Third World Studies (JTWS), the Journal of South Asia (JAS), Asian Ethnicity, and Asian Affairs.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    The Homeless one Anagarika Dharmapala born as Hewavitharana belonged to the Durawe caste. The MOONESINGHES, Anil, and his brothers were immediate Kinsman.
    Mangala was married to a Tamil -Gnana and he was a onetime High Commissioner to LONDON . Mangala Moonesinghe commision did have provisions to resolve the National Question!

  • 0

    Sinhalese and Tamils can live in peace. Racially there is hardly any difference according to scholars. We Sinhalese like to think we are distinct. But the Tamils are also part of this racial composition. Tamils and Sinhalese inter-marry which is a good thing and is perhaps the answer for peaceful living in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately human beings can never live in peace for too long. they will quarrel and fight. Human beings are prone to hatred and violence. If it is not racial differences they will seek some other differences like caste or creed or ancestry etc. RMB Senanayake

    • 0

      When lions and tigers fight killing each other, foxes thrive. It is time for lions and tigers to get together and get rid of the foxes.

      • 0


        When lion and tigers fight each other not only fox all lot of other animals thrive because two jungle monsters getting eliminated themselves. I think we must make all the animals happy by eliminating lion and tigers.

  • 0

    As a solution to our madness, I agree that our democratic institutions including the constitution need to strengthen to serve the individual citizen instead of any community including the sole survival of the political community. But I do not agree with the idea of a power-sharing or political autonomy as that will only create a captured community even of Tamil speaking people under similar oppressive rule by its own leaders even if the general citizen may build a better trust than the national leadership. Therefore, we should not make any social, economic or political decisions based on race or religion that will isolate or separate communities but find means to live collectively with stronger and equitable rights and responsibilities in the hands of the individual citizens, independent of race/religion so we could manage our leaders within the laws of the land guaranteed by a constitution rather than trusting any set of leaders and issuing a carte blanche checkbook. Core issues in our nation are caused by lack of generation in economic wealth to share among all citizens and the ineffectiveness of services provides by the government, so they are compelled to compromise them based on most political advantageous means instead of the most equitable means to all its citizens. Therefore, what we need to do is come together as ONE nation and take back the excessive power and wealth we have granted to a central government and ensure our leaders serve and protect every citizen in the country.

  • 0

    The problem with Sri Lanka is we don’t have a statesman, instead, we have only politicians. The politicians think only about the next elections. Today, Singapore with a population of only 5 million is a mini-superpower thanks to the vision of its first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He turned Singapore into an economic powerhouse within a short period. Singapore’s per capita income exceeds that of USA! Though Chinese constitute 75% of the population the minority groups like Malays, Tamils have an equal share in the government Chinese, Tamil, Malay and English have been declared the official languages of Singapore. In Sri Lanka Sinhala Only was pushed down the throats of Tamils with disastrous effects. Democracy is not rule by an ethnic majority. Democracy is rule by consent. Every citizen should be counted. The minority Tamils who stood with the majority Sinhalese to gain independence now feel they have been let down by power-hungry Sinhalese politicians. Sri Lanka has become a country limping along with one crisis to another crisis.

  • 0

    My points are as follows:

    1) No Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka as Sri Lanka belongs to all the people living here.
    2) No Special problems to Tamils in Sri Lanka.
    3) No special issues to Tamils in Sri Lanka..
    4) If Tamils want, they can live peacefully and harmoniously as they did for centuries as long as they do not talk or challenge about the very fabrication of Sri Lanka, its territorial integrity, and so called Home land, Traditional areas etc. No comments against Buddhism and its presence in North as we never commented about Kovils in South and no comment about Sinhalese settling down in North as LTTE did enthnic cleansing and as Sri Lankans have right to live anywhere in the country as same as Tamils in Kotahena, Mattakkuliya, Wellwatte areas.
    5) Shall not make celebrations of Terrorist activities calling them as Mahaveer or an other to inflame sentiments of the majority as they must accept that there was no genocide in annihilating Terrorist LTTE.
    6) Tamil masses shall understand the poisons the Tamil politicians bring in for their survival and not at all for the benefit of the masses.
    7) As people of Sri Lanka, we have economic problems and none other and we must come together as Sri Lankans to solve the economic problems for the benefit of everybody living in this beautiful country..

    In my working career in Sri Lanka, I have worked in places like Batticaloa, Ampara, Kalmunai, and entire Eastern Province, Vavunia and many other places in North and East and know the mindset of them and how closely we have associated them with very good understanding and most importantly in the period where LTTE ACTIVITES were at the highest level. FYI, I talked these viewpoints at that time and even today.

    Hope that Tamil masses have the wisdom to understand that they are poisoned and been doing so by the so called Tamil politicians.

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