Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Colonialism Forgotten: The Case of Sri Lanka

A good deal of the world’s attention has been focused on Sri Lanka and the conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. With regard to the Tamils, however, most of the attention is directed towards the Tamil Tigers, a resistance group that advocates for secession, frequently through force.

So the Tamil Tigers are not boy scouts. The means by which they fight for secession are often violent and extremely immoral. They have been accused, for example, of abducting children and pressuring Tamil families to give up their children to become soldiers (see

Historical Backdrop to Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict

Unfortunately, in the mainstream international discourse of this ongoing conflict, Sri Lanka’s historical context has been very much glossed over. Historically, Sri Lanka endured some degrees of independence under the rule of the Portuguese and Dutch, but it was the shifting political dynamics prompted by British colonists in the 19th and 20th centuries that paved the way for ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese.

Unbeknownst to many, Tamils, though a numerical minority in Sri Lanka during the 1800s, were a socio-political majority relative to the numerically larger Sinhalese population. It was Tamils at the time who took advantage of the British political and economic structural arrangements in Sri Lanka, while Sinhalese felt their language and religion (Buddhism) were threatened.

Following 1931 when universal voting rights were put into place by the British, the numerically larger Sinhalese began to gain political power. With independence in 1948, Sri Lanka (then “Ceylon”) was left without a political infrastructure or plan that could have helped to mitigate the severe ethnic conflict that has ravaged Sri Lanka now for decades. It was no longer a British problem – it was a Sri Lankan problem.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Tamils became more and more underprivileged, having to cope with institutionalized discrimination (e.g., Sinhalese became the country’s official language in 1956; Buddhism was privileged over Hinduism).

Current State of Tamil Oppression

Not surprisingly, as access to work and education diminished for the Tamils, efforts for secession increased, and this is what we have now (narrative taken from
video produced by The Guardian. Click on the link and watch the video; it is very graphic, but demonstrates the severity of this alarming conflict.):

We’ve reached a point where death is not a problem now… Everyone’s like, whatever happens, it happens. That’s it. That’s the mentality every single person has here… Children’s lost their parents. Parent’s lost their children. It’s just a common thing now. It’s like everyday routine now. Death is not a problem at all here now. People are used to it.

Distorted Image of the Tamil Population and their Forgetten Victimization

The dominant image of the Tamil Tigers – the most violent secessionist group among the Tamils – lacks context. For instance, this
TIME magazine article offers a few sentences that address the oppression faced by Tamils. But they offer numerous paragraphs, such as those below, that demonize the Tamil Tigers and Tamils in the international diaspora.

…the Tigers have plotted many brutal attacks, including more than 200 by suicide bombers, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have been killed in the conflict and more have been displaced. The LTTE has bombed public buildings and transportation hubs, Buddhist temples and other locations, and is known for missions involving female suicide bombers and for recruitment of child soldiers…

Through their history, the Tigers have financed their operations with bank robberies and drug smuggling, among other illegal acts. They are also believed to get much of their support from ethnic Tamils living in Western Europe and Canada. Some estimates say the LTTE raises more than $200 million a year...

However, as Tamil journalist
Cynthia Shanmugalingam writes, it is the Sri Lankan state, led by the Sinhalese, that are currently displacing literally hundreds of thousands of Tamils, forcing them into horrid conditions. Furthermore, censorship is being enforced as the Sri Lankan military attacks the Tigers and non-violent Tamils around them (who may or may not be used by the Tigers as human shields).

In Sri Lanka right now, around 100,000 civilians are trapped in a war zone, where they are being shelled every day by their government. A further 200,000 are in army-controlled internment camps without adequate food or water – and no sign of them being let out any time soon. They are all Tamil, like me and my family. That is about 10% of the entire Tamil population in Sri Lanka. To put it into perspective, it's about a quarter of the population of the entire Gaza strip.

There are two possible reasons why this is happening. First, that the Tamil Tigers are terrorists, and civilian deaths are unfortunate collateral damage in Sri Lanka's domestic war on terror. Or, second, that killing Tamil Tigers is a ruse for killing Tamils, and that the government is using the terrorist line to spin a sinister agenda.

While the international community grapples with Sri Lanka's insistence that it is the former, a depressing body of evidence points towards the sinister. There is the censorship – areas restricted to journalists including the "safe" zone where undercover reporters have to sneak out news of horrors.

What’s happening now is dreadful example of what can happen on a macro level when an institutional framework is not set up that provides for conflict management. Excessive ethnic conflict does occur without a colonial pretext.

However, western colonialism played a significant role in the current Sri Lankan crisis. You cannot just go into a society, colonize it, create imbalances of power based on language/culture, and then simply leave. Well, I suppose you can. We’re seeing the results now.

(Photos courtesy of
The Guardian)

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  1. Stealth Conflicts and The Legacies of Colonialism - Sri Lanka

    And more on the aftermath, following the apparent Tamil defeat:

    What now for Sri Lanka?: After many years of suffering and after such a terrible cost in lives, Sri Lanka's president has told the nation that its civil war is over.

  2. I think we can't ignore this kind of things. This is really happening and we are laughing about it. It's a sick behavior: rich countries. What happen with this society?

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