A Challenge To Tamils Living In Sri Lanka

By Arun Kumaresan

Arun Kumaresan - Air Vice Marshal (Ret'd)

Arun Kumaresan – Air Vice Marshal (Ret’d)

The word ‘Hearts and Minds’ was first used by a French General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyaute in1870’s to counter the Black Flags rebellion in Indo China-Chinese border to gain much needed levy within the subjected population. This concept was also the cornerstone of the KESBAN; the strategy of Security and Development in countering Malayan emergency. British employed this concept with some success to eradicate the perceived feeling of seeing all Chinese as rebel communists by the majority Malay community. It was also used in Vietnam War and other campaigns, but the critics of this concept argue that it was used by aggressors to beautify conduct of a brutal war.

Of course, the above are in a conflict setting but concept of ‘Hearts and Minds’ has become more relevant in the post conflict Sri Lanka. The famous January 2015 revolution leading to ’Yahapalanaya’ regime came into power with much promise to win ‘Hearts and Minds’ of all Sri Lankans. Irrespective of the criticism of its momentum – there have been a considerable shift towards democratic and participatory governance. All stakeholders in executive, legislature and Judiciary operate with sufficient freedom that was in decline during the former era. It will be unfair to blame the former era alone as it all started since -in CBK’s parlance -1978 “Bahuobbotha” constitution of JRJ.

The great challenge for the reconciliation process is due to the perceptions and emotions that are generated in our mindsets both in individual and collective social setting. It creates a feeling of negativism in matters related to the other ethnicity; Sinhala viz-a-viz Tamil and vice versa. It has also transcended to create an anti-Indian feeling both in general and also in particular to issues related to Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity. It is very often overblown and has become a tool to raise emotions leading to hatred. Unfortunately, these negative emotions has transcended to the day to day life of all Sri Lankans

Recently, I had the benefit to receive a response from a Sri Lankan of Sinhalese ethnicity being annoyed with my suggestions on an unrelated matter where we had divergent views and he thought it fit to take a dig at me for mentioning the name of Mahatma Gandhi in one of my earlier articles in Colombo Telegraph. He said, quote“…Great to see you are praising a leader from India but forgetting all the great political and religious leaders mother Lanka produced during our rich and proud history”, without realizing the great Lord Gautama Buddha who taught us the art and science of living too was from the Indian sub continent.

Another friend of mine currently domiciled abroad, a Sinhalese and an ardent believer of Gospel also has great fears of India. He too had reservations of Dr Harsha De Silva’s project Ambulance service – as it is modeled on a functioning Indian system – that will open the gateway of bringing in Indians. Another fear he has is that there will be baby farms in North and East supported by India – of course his imagination has been running riot.

In another instant two Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity domiciled in USA at two different meetings post 2011 were vocal about the ability to coexist with Sinhalese and one an elderly medical officer was seemingly proud of their role with US state department in bringing in war crimes inquiry. I responded that nothing will happen as these are mere geo political maneuvers and if there were to be such inquiries that state department should first look at the mirror of their own conduct. The other was seemingly annoyed and degraded the Sri Lankan armed forces for which I gave him a belly full. In a social media post I was happy to see him recently in Colombo having gourmet food with his friends and looks that he has now got his appetite back.

Firstly, I respect all their views, as the above are examples that are in a mild setting – unlike many more that we here – from Gammanpila, Weerawansa and Sivajilingam likes – and it has to be taken seriously especially by the political authority and people of North and East. Whilst the feelings of the Tamils are being taken care of by the state, emotions of Sinhalese too needs attention as the past still haunts their minds.

Influence of India in Sri Lanka surpasses two millenniums. Sinhalese and Tamils have roots in India. Going by Mahawamsa, the arrival of King Vijaya has been recorded as an event that happened 2500 plus years ago. King Vijaya was a Bengali –not a Sinhalese – under the present day ethno classifications. Then Bengal encompassed present day Bangladesh and parts of Odessa. Some historians’ place the Kingdom Vijaya’s father was centered within the present day Bangladesh. Irrespective of some believers, Tamils too could have sea fared the narrow Palk Straits even before, similar to Vijaya and his clan’s voyage; the Mahawamsa records a King by the name of Elara, of Tamil origin who ruled over two millenniums ago. The question of who came first is irrelevant – chicken or egg- but the fact remains both arrived without the consent of the natives who were living from the era of Balangoda man – who was neither Sinhalese nor Tamil – but forced their way to make Sri Lanka their land for living – illegal boat people or kallathonis ; if it had happened now. To cut the long story short, the modern science depicts our anthropological linkage as follows: (Source: Wikipedia: Genetc Studies of Dr. SahaPapiha &Dr. Gautam K. Kshatriya respectively)sinhala-tamil-genetic

The above depiction should make all us ashamed of our perceptions of each other portraying as Aryans, Dravidians, Chola invaders etc, etc. One thing we don’t like to compare our ethno linkage with our closest anthropological cousins, Bengalis. Physical resemblance of Bangaladeshi cricketers on a live telecast could be easily confused as Sri Lankans, if not for the regalia they wear, justifies the above scientific conclusions. Sri Lankan Tamils too must take a close look of their genetic profiling as Bengali and Sinhalese component that heavily outweighs the other.

Irrespective of such anthropological linkages based on historical and on scientific evidence with India, there are strong perceptions among South’ with regards to Tamils as Pro Indian and India is Pro Tamils. Sri Lankan Tamils too tend to refer with affinity to India when dealing with matters of Sri Lanka and Sinhalese.

Events and actions during post Independent Sri Lanka were characterized by rise in the respective ethno nationalisms. SWRD came into power through propagating Sinhala nationalism and GG Ponnamapalam, Sunthalingam and others thrived in coming into legislature by espousing the cause of Tamil nationalism. But after the elections, most relished the comfortable Colombo lifestyle they had become accustomed to, in contrast to their voters who had to work hard for a living. Who started the ethno nationalism is irrelevant – chicken or egg situation again – but tens of thousands have had untimely and violent deaths and we remain in relatively primitive in socio economic development.These politicians failed to identify the commonality we share as depicted above.

Indo Lanka relations during the post independence are characterized by periods of zenith and nadir. The zenith was during Mrs Sirimavo Banadaranayke era, during which two repatriation treaties of plantation labor were signed and Katchativu became part of Sri Lanka. These agreements are of great value in the Sri Lankan context. With acumen and grace this lady conducted the Indo Lank relationship needs special mention, as she achieved above, whilst being a close friend of both China and Pakistan. Unfortunately, lapse of time and less emphasis of positives has made these a non issue in our mindset.

From 1977 there was a steady decline in the Indo Lanka relationship. Commentators put this on our alignment with US and to some extent to the unwanted utterances in the new parliament – cow and calf – co relating to two former lady Prime Ministers from both countries and their respective sons in politics at that time by the new UNP government without realizing the Indian counterpart will one day come back into power. Further, cold war era was characterized by attempts in gaining and controlling geographical spheres of influence. This has relevance as at that time as India had a slight tilt towards the then Soviets .History shows meddling with internal affairs was an instrument used to maintain strategic posture to their advantage by the powerful nations. These became more reinforced due to the geographical proximity of SL with India. Mrs Indra Ghandi thought it fit to support the separatist movements cashing in on the support it had in with the same language speaking people in Tamil Nadu. To date, this is seen by the South as the beginning of an armed militant movement.

The trend continued till the Indian air drop that halted the Vadamarachi operations. This was followed by the Indo Lanka accord and it was perceived as an agreement signed under pressure. This led to the arrival of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was also seen as an alien army in occupation. These events still linger in the mindsets of the southern populace and they need not be blamed for it.

Indian Geo Strategic interests in the region are bound to continue. Towards this, the comment made recently by the former Defense Secretary (GR); “Govt. has let Indian cat out of the bag” has relevance but it should be noted that the Indian cat was never inside a bag. The reason for not installing the Chinese made air surveillance radar in Trincomalee due to heavy Indian pressure during his period will clearly show the position of the Indian cat irrespective who is ruling Sri Lanka. In the words of Mr Gamini Dissanayake, coincidently made just before the period of Vadamaraachi operations to the effect, Sri Lanka should understand the Geo Political realities in relation to being a close neighbor of India needs mention. His statement needs further research whether he was intuitive or otherwise; as what he told became a reality within weeks, if not in month or two. Tamil leadership needs to take a close look at this inevitable reality to ensure feelings arising from this reality do not crate perceptions and hurt the process of reconciliation.

In this backdrop of such perceptions, there have been significant gains in the process of reconciliation. During a recent visit by Mr Wimal Weerawanssa to meet the Malwatte Chief Prelate and the response by Venerable Mahanayake cautioning the politician against fear mongering, amplify the progress what Yahapalanaya ‘Hearts and Minds’ campaign achieved so far. This is a very good indicator and the emerging environment needs further nurturing. It is now the time for the Sri Lankan Tamils and its polity to take up the challenge and win the ‘Hearts and Minds’ of the people in South to erase the negative perceptions that has accrued over a period of time.

Fact remains there was an era of subversion culminating in terrorism. Residual fears will remain and will fertilize those who aspire to capture power by raising emotions, the same way our politicians from both sides did since independence. There need to be genuine attempts from all sides reduce the gaps and cement the fault lines that divide us. There is no need to waste any more time to analyze the rights and wrongs of the past. We have to create an environment for peaceful co-existence forever. Towards this, there should be a clear message from the Sri Lankan Tamils living in Sri Lanka through their democratically elected leadership in both provinces to see the successful passage of a resolution sans any conditions or cavities to the effect;
Affirming -The sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

Affirming – Not to support any forms of calls for cessation, subversion and/or violence.

Successful passage of a resolution to this effect in my opinion will erase to a great extent suspicion and mistrust. It will shut many mouths including that of the Diaspora of all shades living in relative comfort and cheering slogans of hatred at each other. It will also help to facilitate speedy and successful passage of a constitution that is acceptable to all segments of the society.

I hope, the Hon’ble Leader of the Opposition as the leader of the vast majority of Tamils living in Sri Lanka be given the necessary strength and support to lead this ‘Hearts and Minds’ effort with all Tamil Political and Social entities for the sake of peaceful and dignified living of all Lankans.