THE ROOTS OF CONFLICT IN THE ISLAND NOW CALLED SRI LANKA
By Charles Somasundrum
In any attempt to understand the causes of the conflict between the two principal races in the island of Sri Lanka – the Sinhalas and the Tamils, one needs first to understand the background to such conflict. The conflict we are talking about here is where forces of the Sinhalas, who form the government of the island, are at present in military control of the traditional homeland of the Tamils that the Tamils call Eelam, in the North and East of the island. This military control, as is the case with all control by armed forces wherever in the world, inevitably causes untold suffering, humiliation and, in the case of the Tamils of Eelam, death. In this instance, this has led to large numbers of Tamils being forced to flee for safety to foreign countries.
First, let us try to understand what happened before this conflict came about. Ceylon , as the island was then called, was granted her independence from British colonial rule in 1948 shortly after Britain freed India where she created two separate countries, India and Pakistan in place of the one ‘British' India . In the process, they caused untold suffering as a result of this physical separation of one nation into two, resulting in mass migration of refugees between the two countries.
The island of Ceylon did not experience similar disruption after independence, as the entire island continued as before, with the same administration and the same officials. The last governor of colonial Ceylon, Sir Andrew Caldicott became the first governor general of Independent Ceylon. Lord Soulbury, who was the leader of the team that had been sent to Ceylon to draft a new constitution before independence, succeeded Caldicott as governor general. The constitution of Ceylon after independence was drafted by Sir Ivor Jennings who was, at that time, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon that had just then moved to its new campus in Peradeniya. Sir Ivor was one of the earliest batches of knights created by Don Stephen Senanayake (DS) as first Prime Minister of Ceylon. Sir Oliver Goonetileke who was to succeed Lord Soulbury as the first Ceylonese governor general was also made a knight. DS was so obsessed by having Britishers of ‘pedigree' working for him that he appointed Brigadier the Earl of Caithness as his army chief, having personally interviewed him in London.
This was the peaceful Ceylon as compared to the carnage that was going on in neighbouring India and Pakistan. Ceylon's economy depended at that time on her main exports of tea, rubber and coconuts. It is estimated that at that time, Tea produced as much as 62% of the island's foreign income. Other items that were exported, though not in the same large quantities as tea, rubber and coconut, were plumbago and gems. On the other hand, most of the island's food was imported from abroad. Rice was imported from Burma, wheat flour from America (in fact wheat flour was referred to in Tamil households as American flour), dried fish from the Maldives, canned products from Britain, meat, fruit, lentils and even some spices from India while grapes and apples and butter were imported from Australia. Remember, this was the ‘golden' age when Britain was manufacturing Austin motorcars and Raleigh bicycles. Ceylon imported these in large numbers. Needless to say, a large slice of the income that Ceylon received from exports went on the import of manufactures and foodstuffs. All this when the world was still recovering from the effects of the world war that had recently ended. Britain was just recovering from ‘rationing' while new cars were not available to the average Britisher, since whatever was produced was exported.
The administration of the country was in the hands of the ‘English' educated elite, educated at the few schools teaching in the English medium. The principal schools prided themselves on imitating British ‘public' schools. Schools like Royal College, St Thomas', Wesley, and St Josephs' in Colombo; Trinity and Kingswood in Kandy; Richmond in Galle and St Johns', Jaffna Central and Jaffna College in Jaffna.
It might be relevant to point out that though the British called certain of their schools ‘public schools', they were really, exclusive private schools. The origin of this name goes back to a time in Britain, when the wealthy (usually the aristocrats) employed private tutors to teach their children, in the safe confines of their vast homes and there was no danger of their ‘rubbing shoulders' with the ‘unwashed' multitude in the schools that the children of the ‘common' folk attended. Gradually, special schools were set up where these privately educated youth could be gathered together and taught in groups and live in boarding houses attached to their schools. These schools came to be called ‘Public' schools as opposed to the children being taught ‘privately' at home. Thus it came about that the children of the aristocracy were taught in central places while at the same time, they were conveniently out of sight, while their parents were free to get more involved in the social whirl of the period.
Students from the ‘Public' schools of Ceylon, when they did leave school, went on to make up the bulk of the administrators in the public service and the professionals. This was also the time when Ceylon had a large Burgher population. These Burghers were descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese who had settled in Ceylon when their respective countries ruled the island. There were close to 45 to 50 thousand of them. They had adopted English customs and habits and spoke English as their mother tongue.
Apart from the Burghers there were also the British residents in the island, of whom there were close to 7,000, who were mostly ‘Planters' in the tea and rubber estates while others owned and controlled a number of mercantile firms that were involved in the import/export business or worked in banks, ran printing presses, operated photographic establishments or ran the few large hotels. They also owned the large motor garages that also sold cars, motorbikes and trucks.
The language of administration was English and the medium of instruction at all the principal educational establishments was also English. For example, every policeman spoke and understood English and if one got lost, one could always ask the way from a policeman in English and be sure that he understood what you were saying. Knowledge of English was a ‘must', for all jobs except for the very menial jobs like office messengers who were known as ‘peons'. I remember as a child, I was waiting at the Maradana railway station, in Colombo, one morning with an older relative. The morning commuter train arrived and disgorged a large number of young men (this was a time in Ceylon when the men worked while the women - except for a few exceptions- looked after the house). They were all dressed in well-ironed and well-starched white shirts and white trousers. These were the office workers. Most of them were tie less though some wore ties. They were clearly the managerial grades. I can still smell the whiff of cigarette smoke (that was new to me then) as they passed me by. Almost all of them carried a lighted cigarette. It was an office rule both in government offices as well as in mercantile establishments that staff should at all times be neatly attired. No fancy shirts or dark trousers were permitted. The result was that white clothes became almost a sort of uniform for office workers.
To go back to the Ceylonese elite, they too, like the British aristocrats, did not want to rub shoulders with every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry'. I remember the ‘old boys' of Richmond College Galle singing the song ‘auld lang syne', a traditional English public school song sung at farewells and at the end of the year, at the end of a farewell dinner to a departing Principal as recently as 1957. Yes, The elite Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher lived in a different world. Though they differed in racial and religious background, the common tongue they spoke - English, united them.
At the height of the first communal clash in 1958 it was necessary for a top-level delegation to proceed to America to negotiate a loan of $50 million. The delegation that had been picked before the clash, comprised Mr Stanley de Zoysa the Finance Minister (a Sinhala Christian); Mr S F Amerasingha the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Finance (a Sinhala Christian) and Mr Raju Coomaraswamy a senior civil servant who was Secretary to the Treasury (a Tamil Hindu).
What brought a new complexion to this deceptively peaceful existence was a new bill introduced in parliament by the white verti clad Mr C W W W Kanangara who was the Minister for Education, to introduce ‘Free Education' throughout the island. Till now education, especially in the English language, was limited to the few who could afford it. The bulk of school going children, if they went to school at all, attended what was called the vernacular schools or schools that taught in Sinhala or Tamil and that too only the very basic subjects. In the Tamil areas in the North and East however, more students underwent a better education at a surfeit of schools of better quality. This was because the ‘mission' schools as these schools were called, often waived fees for the indigent (ie.lacking the means of subsistence or being extremely poor) students. In fact, students in adjacent Sinhala areas often attended schools in the Tamil North and East not because they were ‘indigent' but because there were no suitable schools where they lived. It is interesting to note that Mr Maithripala Senanayake who was to become a minister under an SLFP government and later Governor of the North Central Region and Mr K B Ratnayake who was to become a Speaker in the national parliament studied at St John's College Jaffna. In later years, Mr Senanayake married the daughter of a Tamil clergyman Rev. Handy. This surfeit of schools in the Tamil areas was due to the various Christian missions like the ‘American' mission who started schools like Jaffna College, Union College, Uduvil Girls College etc.
It is known that the ‘American Mission' has schools only in Jaffna and nowhere else in Ceylon. In the early years of colonial rule, the Anglican Church and to a lesser extent the Methodist Church, enjoyed special privileges. The ‘American Mission' approached the colonial government in order to start their own mission schools. The Anglicans and the Methodists, who had the English government officials, who attended their churches, on their side, saw to it that though the Americans were permitted to start schools they were restricted to the most inhospitable area of Ceylon – the arid North! What the South lost was Jaffna's gain.
The Anglican mission had schools in Jaffna, schools like St Johns', Chundikuli and Hartley College in Point Pedro; the Methodist mission had schools like Jaffna Central and Vembadi in Jaffna, and Vincent's and Central College in Batticaloa.
Clearly, this resulted in a larger number of Tamil youth who were better educated and more fluent in English than the Sinhala youth who, with ‘Free Education', were all seeking government employment in the public (civil) service or in the professions like engineers, doctors, lawyers etc. Very soon however, as ‘Free Education' began to take hold, there were more and more youth from the Sinhala villages who were clamouring for ‘government' jobs and getting resentful at the fact that Tamils held most of the important government posts disproportionate (not in keeping with) to their number in the island.
This is what led to the demand that day-to-day government business should only be conducted in Sinhala. The reasoning was that if administration were only in Sinhala, the Tamils, most of who could not work in Sinhala, would be without jobs. This demand for administration to be conducted only in Sinhala came to be called the ‘Sinhala Only' demand. Opportunist politicians like Mr S W R D Bandaranayake, (who was born a Christian but became a Buddhist for, mostly political reasons) the father of the current President, fanned the flames. The Buddhist monks, not to be left out, also got in on the bandwagon bringing a religious aspect to the campaign.
Bandaranayake campaigned on a manifesto undertaking to introduce ‘Sinhala Only' the day after he took office. He won and the rest is history. One distinct aspect of this change to Sinhala Only was the decision to use the Sinhala letter ‘Sri' in the number plates of all motor vehicles. When the Ceylon Transport Board sent buses with this Sinhala alphabet on their number plates to Jaffna it proved to be the last straw to the Tamil man. Tamil youth began daubing (smear or disfigure with paint or other substance) the Sinhala alphabet with the equivalent Tamil alphabet with tar (bitumen) or black paint. One must remember that these were the same Tamil youth, who were well educated and had left school but were now unable to obtain ‘government' jobs, as they could not sit the required tests in Sinhala or succeed at interviews conducted in Sinhala. One should remember, that government jobs, with their guaranteed pensions was the ultimate goal of all young men – whatever their race or religion. I keep referring to ‘young men' and not to ‘young women' since this was a period, when only the men worked while the women kept house and minded the children. In a large number of instances, particularly among the Tamils, the women maintained their home and minded the children in Jaffna and the North while their men folk worked in offices in Colombo or other places. Often, a group of such men would ‘chum' together in a house rented by them for this purpose. The trains to the north particularly at the beginning of a bank holiday or a temple festival, would be crowded with such men returning home to their families.
One can imagine the tension and turmoil that the ‘Sinhala Only' cry caused to the Tamil youth (both boys and girls). The chances of marriage for the girls were becoming more and more remote, with the young men unemployed. The action of the government in sending buses, through the Ceylon Transport Board, to Jaffna with the bold Sinhala ‘Sri' alphabet painted in their number plates, seemed like a slap in their faces. This action of the Jaffna youth (I mean young men not young women since young women had still not actively entered the Tamil freedom struggle) had its repercussions in the Sinhala South where bands of Sinhalas, not only in Colombo but in places as varied as Kurunegala, Veyangoda, Gampola or Badulla started daubing with tar, all Tamil sign boards, road signs, kiosks, destination boards on buses, name plates on gates of houses and even on Tamil posters for films stuck on walls. They even daubed tar on the Left-Hand-Drive rear warning sign that appeared in English, Sinhala and Tamil on the Prime Minister's Caddilac. Some of the troublemakers according to Tarzie Vittachi in his book ‘Emergency ‘58' did not know how to write the Sinhala ‘Sri' alphabet. They were so illiterate! .
Gradually this ‘Sri' campaign developed into Ceylon's first, major, communal disturbance, often referred to as a ‘riot', that took place in May 1958. This was Ceylon's first experience of mass communal unrest and a general breakdown of law and order.
When after a few days of wavering, the government decided to stop the unrest; the armed forces that had hitherto been used only for ceremonial occasions were called out. A Burgher, Commander Royce de Mel, was placed in charge of a largely Burgher or English educated and English speaking troop of men who put down the unrest. This was the last time that a neutral body of men from the armed forces were called upon to deal with troublemakers.
I remember being personally involved in these riots twice. The first was when at my sister's house in Hulftsdorp, having come down for the weekend from Trincomalee where I was working. I had gone in to the Pettah (a busy shopping area) and had just entered a shop to buy something to find that shopkeeper was not even listening to me. He was busy closing his shop. I got out to find a large band of men shouting and coming down the road with sticks, knives and similar weapons. I promptly left the place and went to my sister's house. That evening, I needed to go to the Fort to meet up with a friend. The larger department stores and also government and mercantile offices were to be found here. My friend worked in an office there.
Taking a bus from Hulftsdorp to the Fort and travelling on the top deck of a double decker bus I had a clear view of the road ahead. As the bus reached the terminus in the Fort I could see, that there were marauding groups of men who were chasing and beating up any Tamils on the road. A scared or timid looking person meant that that person was a Tamil. Such people were beaten up and relieved of the wristwatch, wallet and anything else of value they carried. Taking off my watch and placing it in my pocket and all my currency notes in my shoe, not carrying a wallet, I got out of the bus with my hands in my pockets, whistling like a person without a care in the world. I was not stopped. I met up with my friend and we took a taxi to the Bambalapitiys Flats where he lived.
Spending the evening with my friend I decided to get back to Hulftsdorp late that evening. My friend advised me to take a taxi rather than go by bus. I took a taxi and the driver got into conversation with me. I could speak fluent Sinhala then. He said that there was trouble at Maradana. I was to learn later that the Hotel Buhari at Maradana junction, a well know Muslim hotel famous for its Biriyani, was at that time being looted and smashed. I suggested an alternate route. He took me on a virtual sightseeing tour via the docklands area, where he pointed out groups of men. He said they were waiting for nightfall to loot the Tamil shops of which there were a large number in the area. The labour force in the docks was then, mostly Malayahi (Indian) Tamil. We approached Hulftsdorp without any incident and were driving up a rise called San Sebastian Hill when we were stopped by a group of men. There were some policemen close by but they just looked on and did not seem to care. One of the men asked me ‘Mahathaya Sinhalathe Demalathe?' – ‘Sir – Are you a Sinhala or a Tamil?' Those were the days when even a mob of men poised to attack you still addressed you with that little bit of what went for respect by calling me ‘Mahathaya' – ‘Sir'. I told him ‘Mama Sinhala Mona Pisuthe? – I am a Sinhala, what is this madness! The driver of the taxi vouched for me. He really thought I was a Sinhala. Needless to say, I did not leave my sister's house again till the armed forces had restored order.
This event was called ‘ Race Riots ' . A ‘ Riot'is defined as - ‘a violent public disorder, a tumultuous disturbance of three or more persons assembled together and acting with common intent' . Subsequent events were no ‘riot' in that they were not merely ‘violent disorder' or ‘tumultuous disturbance' It was a ‘Pogrom' – pogrom is a Yiddish word that originated in Russia where the Jewish inhabitants were at the receiving end of repression and coercion from the majority Russians. It means ‘ an organised massacre of helpless people' . What happened in Colombo and other places in 1983 was not a ‘riot' but a ‘pogrom' . It was an ‘organised massacre' where the government of the day, the police, the armed forces and important politicians had a hand, to the extent that the people involved went about their tasks systematically, with voters lists in one hand and weapons in the other, to more easily identify Tamils and Tamil buildings. They even took over, by force, buses of the Ceylon Transport Board to move around the city.
The armed forces at the time of the 1958 ‘riots' had been deployed only for ceremonial occasions like parades on occasions like Independence Day or guards of honour for visiting dignitaries. Orders at such parades, were given in English. The army's officers were sent to Sandhurst in Britain for training. By the time of the 1983 pogrom all this had changed. The armed forces, the army, navy and the air force, had become more nationalist Sinhala oriented. There were few if any Tamils in the armed services. The training of troops and orders both on the parade grounds and written orders, were in Sinhala only. The army were now used to breaking Tamil heads and shooting Tamils. They were no longer scared of using live bullets! They had sophisticated weapons at their disposal that included tanks, armoured trucks and half-tracks (trucks that had regular wheels with tires in front and tank tracks at the back).
After 1983, the Tamils realised that they could not take things lying down any longer. They realised that the only solution was for a free Tamil state and they had to fight to realise this. The Sinhala army now found that they were ‘reaping what they sowed'. Gone were the days when smartly uniformed soldiers could strut about and intimidate the Tamils. They had to now watch out for snipers. The Tamils too had their own soldiers and uniforms and guns and seemed perform better in a battle situation judging by their victories in Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass. The Sinhala army was now becoming used to seeing their soldiers returning to the Sinhala south from the war zone in the north in - ‘body bags'.
The army is no longer a ceremonial army but a fighting one, that is beginning to cost the country dearly. A large proportion of the country's income is going on servicing the army. Fighter planes, bombers, tanks, rocket powered weapons, bombs, ammunition and ships and many others. The army and its officers have to be paid. Money for this purpose has to be found from other sources like Education, Health and Social Services. The country's infrastructure is beginning to crumble. In Colombo for instance, the drainage system dates from colonial times as also pipe borne water. Residents of Colombo – the capital city – have become used to their water supply being cut off at certain times of the day, every day while the electricity supply breaks down regularly so much so, that hotels and other large commercial establishments, have their own electricity generators, that of course, cost a lot to run.
Ceylon had been in an enviable position at Independence. She had a highly literate population and her health service was the envy of many countries in the east. Her people were cultured and sophisticated. Many countries today, despise Sri Lanka. The main foreign income earner for Sri Lanka today are, tourism with foreign tourists swamping the hotels and beach resorts with more money to flaunt (show off) than the locals, since the value of the Sri Lankan Rs. has fallen so drastically, and the demeaning (lower in status or reputation) task of working as servants in Middle Eastern countries. Sadly, as the Sinhala youth who were born and brought up in an atmosphere of fear, anger and hate attain maturity the country gets more and more into the morass (difficult position) that it has created.
The Tamils in the North and East are trying to do the best they can, to patch up their land that has been devastated by a cruel and vindictive Sinhala army. The Tamils who have fled abroad are trying to keep the fires of freedom burning. In many countries of the west Tamil youth who were born not in Eelam but in the west are able to read, write and speak a Tamil of a high standard in addition to the language of the country in which they are presently residing. This is chiefly due to their concerned elders who have started schools to teach the young people their mother tongue and published books and newspapers and magazines in Tamil that keep the fire of Tamil consciousness alive.
There is the hope among all Tamils of Eelam that one day, the Tamils of the ‘Diaspora' (originally referring to the Jewish communities scattered in exile) will be able to return to a free Eelam with their new skills and knowledge and create a ‘Sen Thamil Naadu' of milk and honey.