Report from Sri Lanka

First published in Race & Class, 19/2, Autumn 1977

It is the last week of July and in Colombo the Vel Festival is on. It is a Hindu festival, a Tamil festival marking the annual journey of Lord. Muruga from one end of Colombo to the other as he changes abode. And in the wake of that journey he gathers to himself devotees from all the religions, and all the castes and all the classes and all the races of Sri Lanka. As the chariot in which he rides passes the house of the President of the Republic, the President himself, a Buddhist and a Singhalese, comes out to pay homage to the God.

In the temples there are fairs for the children, free concerts for the grown-ups given by famous musicians from India and in everyone’s hand is a piece of sugar cane. Vel is the season of the sugar cane. 

A week later I go north to the Jaffna peninsula and wherever I go – in towns and in villages, in shops and at bus stands, on the university campus and in the streets – I am constantly and relentlessly faced with a vision of a people who have suffered massive oppression and untold indignities at the hands of successive governments, reaching its zenith with the last. There is a bitterness towards the Sinhala state which has made the ‘indigenous’ Tamil* a third-class citizen in his own country and keeps him that way with an occupying force of police who are largely Singhalese. Strangely but not illogically there is absolutely no hatred of the Singhalese people. Not even the memories of 1958, when the Singhalese renaissance, begun by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike but perverted by his followers to reactionary and racist Sinhala nationalist ends, unleashed the type of racial hatred never known before, had served to drive a wedge between the Tamil and the Singhalese peoples. Their customs were more or less the same, they worshipped each other’s gods, they enjoyed each other’s food. The less traditional among them married into each other’s communities. Sri Lanka has always been a culturally pluralist society. But the dominance given to the Singhalese language as the official language and as the medium of instruction has denied social and economic mobility to the Tamils for the last two decades. The last government went further in this direction by giving weightage to Sinhala students so that they had easier access to higher education than the Tamils, and by allowing Singhalese, under government edict, to colonise traditional Tamil land in the north. But whenever a government, whether of the United National Party (UNP) or of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), made an attempt to restore the Tamil language to its proper place and the Tamil peoples to equal status the Opposition, irrespective of party, has viciously and violently demonstrated against that particular government.

* The ‘indigenous Tamils’ are those who have been settled in the country for almost as long as the Singhalese; the ‘Indian Tamils were brought over by the British in the lastcentury as cheap plantation labour. It is the latter who were disenfranchised by the United National Party government in 1948. Since then an Indo-Ceylon pact has agreed to repatriate half their number while citizenizing the rest.

The Tamil nationalist politicians for their part were initially more bourgeois than Tamil in protecting their class interests and privileges under cover of nationalism, but later, in response to the nationalism they had themselves served to unleash, became more Tamil than bourgeois. And today even the lower classes and castes of Jaffna see the Singhalese state and not the bourgeois high caste Tamil as their main enemy. When finally the last government enshrined discrimination against the Tamils in the constitution of 1972 (by failing to safeguard minority rights), the Tamil politicians, giving voice to the sentiments of their people, raised the cry of separatism and claimed for themselves a state in the Tamil north and the predominantly Tamil-speaking eastern seaboards of Trincomalee and Batticoloa.

But such a separate state, according to the theoretician of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), * whom I spoke to some days later, should come into being without armed struggle or violence. The Singhalese are a peaceful people, he held- deeply Buddhist and given to ahimsa, non-violence, and once they saw the reasonableness of the Tamil claim for a separate state, they would hand it over.

*The TULF is a broad Tamil organisation comprising the ‘indigenous Tamils’, the ‘plantation Tamils’ and the Tamil-speaking Muslims.

Two weeks on, and it is the people of ahimsa – the Singhalese who but weeks ago had venerated the self same god as the Tamils who have begun to burn Tamil houses, loot their shops, maim their children, terrorise their womenfolk. Bus conductors throw out passengers bodily who cannot speak Sinhala and must therefore be Tamil; Singhalese postal workers beat up their Tamil officers in the Central Telegraph Office; a Tamil doctor’s car is burnt on the hospital premises. Intimidation and violence against Tamil public servants threatens to bring civil administration to a halt. In the six schools turned refugee camps in Colombo, ‘housing’ something like 35,000 men, women and children, the conditions are appalling: bad sanitation, little food and less medical help. A request to the authorities that there should be an appeal on the radio for blood donors is turned down as impolitic: Sinhala blood cannot go to Tamil people. But a Singhalese bomb has just been lobbed into a Tamil refugee camp.

For the so-called Indian Tamils – the latrine cleaners and street sweepers of the city driven from their shacks and their tenements and their hovels- the refuge at St Paul’s School affords little asylum there are few soldiers to guard them and even fewer organizations to help them, not even those of the ‘indigenous’ Tamils. The children queue up for anything and everything. And as some of my Singhalese compatriots and l enter the camp to give whatever help we can, we see little children wiping their faces with sanitary towels. But worse these people have no homes in Jafna to go to – the camps in Colombo are transit camps.

The violence against their fellows in the plantations has been even worse. For the Singhalese peasants hold them directly responsible for the loss of their traditional lands – a belief fostered and encouraged by Singhalese politicians. These Tamil workers, who form the back- bone of the Sri Lankan tea economy, are the most exploited and oppressed class, with no possessions but a few trinkets and no homes but the infamous line-rooms – and even these they have been robbed of. And their refugee camps are even more wretched.

In the last few days of August vast numbers of Tamil refugees have been moved by train and ship and plane under heavy guard to Jaffna. And now the problems of the refugee camps have been merely shifted to the north because there is no food there and not everybody has a home to go to there. And what of the Tamils integrated into the Sinhala south who have never known Jaffna at all?

What has gone wrong?

The immediate event that precipitated communal violence was that some plain clothes policemen were prevented from gatecrashing the Jaffna Carnival. But this in itself would not have triggered off racial violence throughout the island. For it was basically a police-civilian clash one of a series which had become endemic to the Tamil north. The police, according to the editor of the Sri Lanka Tribune, had, under cover of the Emergency Regulations through which the United Front (a coalition of the SLFP, the Trotskyites and the CP) and subsequently, the SLFP had governed the country ‘for seven long years.. done very much what they liked in every part of the island. The civilians were too afraid to resist or oppose the police. In Jaffna, however, there was an element of resistance in that a predominantly Singhalese police force represented the occupying army of a discriminatory Sinhala state. In fact, as the Tribune points out, ‘one of the basic causes for the frustrated cry for separation can be traced to the manner [in which] the police and the army had conducted themselves in Jaffna and other Tamil areas’. So that when that cry was vindicated by the TULF in the elections of July 1977 (in which they won all the seats in the peninsula*), the police felt that they had suffered a set-back. Hence, when they were thrown out of the Carnival ground they felt that the Tamils had become uppity and had to be taught a lesson – and so they burned down the Old Jaffna Market in an act of overt and provocative communal violence.

*The official opposition is composed of 19 TULF members and 8 SLFP: neither the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) nor the Communist Party (CP) got one seat.

As the rumour of the events spread south and it was alleged that a Singhalese policeman had been shot (which in fact was a much earlier incident), the train from Jaffna to Colombo was boarded at the first major Singhalese town of Anuradhapura by Singhalese thugs. While the police looked on, passengers were robbed, beaten and murdered. The Tamils in the north in retaliation set fire to Singhalese shops and the evicted shopkeepers carried stories to the south of how a Singhalese vihara had been burnt down and a Buddhist priest assassinated. It was only two days later that the priest himself made a broadcast from his vihara in Jaffna that all was well with him and his temple. Rumours such as these, however, fed fuel to the flames and Tamils all over the country came under attack.

Already there was a climate of violence in the country following the landslide victory of the UNP at the elections – as had happened in 1970 after the victory of the SLFP – only now the SLFP claimed to be the victims. But these were not communal clashes but clashes between rival party supporters – and had been brought under some sort of control when the clashes in Jaffna triggered them off again translating them this time into communal violence. It was for this reason that the government alleged conspiracy on the part of the SLFP to embarrass the government and had in fact put some ex-MPs and a deputy minister of the former government under house arrest.

But such incitement to violence on the part of failed SLFP members is only one dimension of the problem. The other, particularly in Colombo and surrounding areas, was the abject poverty in which over half the urban population was living. Over 50 per cent of Colombo’s inhabitants, noted a Central Bank report, live in shanties. In the past two years in particular the cost of living has sky-rocketed. And when, after the Emergency was lifted just before the elections and the press was set free, it became increasingly apparent that foodstuffs had been hoarded by private racketeers and that some of it had even rotted in government warehouses because of bureaucratic] neglect, the anger of the people knew no bounds. It first expressed itself in their vote against the SLFP, then in the violence against its followers and finally made communalism an excuse to rob and lootthe Tamil population settled in their midst. The third dimension, particularly in the towns, was a paying off of old business scores between Tamil and Singhalese shopkeepers.

But not even the wide curfew which the government imposed from the very outset brought an immediate halt to the violence. And although the government was blamed for not clamping down an Emergency it became evident in the days that followed that it could not trust some sections of the police and the army to be impartial. This was particularly apparent in Jaffna where no curfew was imposed. 

Nor did the Lanka Sama Samaja Party or the Communist Party mobilise trade union support to put a stop to the communal violence, as they had done in the riots of 1958. Or perhaps they were unable to, for their capitulationist politics had debased and demoralised the working class and left them without a base, as was evidenced by the elections. Their statements, when they finally emerged, were weak and ineffectual. Mrs Bandaranaike’s statement on behalf of the SLFP was made some nine days after the principal events, and while blaming the Prime Minister for not enforcing law and order, the TULF for inciting racialism, and the mass media for everything else, appealed to her supporters for calm.

The Prime Minister, Mr J.R. Jayawardene, both in his party’s manifesto and in his speech in the National State Assembly, has acknowledged the massive disabilities of the Tamils and has promised to find solutions to these in an all-party conference. But he has also warned the TULF against talks of separatism, going so far as to say, ‘If you want to fight let there be a fight; if it is peace, let there be peace. That is what they will say. It is not what I’m saying. The people of Sri Lanka say that.’ The mailed fist in the velvet glove. 

Mr Jayawardene prides himself on being a modern statesman. Corruption, nepotism and racism for him are counter-productive; they foul up a modern capitalist economy. And it is possible that left to himself he would have attempted to ‘heal the wounds of the nation’, but he still has in his cabinet the old guard of the UNP and amongst the Buddhist clergy, a cross-section of influential racialists

Besides, the country is faced with a grave economic crisis – and racialism is always a useful distraction from the root causes of poverty. The recent communal violence will have once again unleashed generalised Sinhala chauvinism. Whether a UNP government will not again renege on its promises to the Tamils is in doubt.

The signs are ominous.