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Globalization and national question in Sri Lanka


By V.I.S Jayapalan, Part I
Despite what the conditions and dynamics in the future politics of the Island of Sri Lanka may be, even if divided into two countries, our children as Sinhalese and Tamil speaking people have to co-exist as neighbours.

To contribute to this, regardless of the fact whether we work for separation or a federal union, we have to create and leave a cultural and political climate for peaceful co-existence for our children as friendly neighbours in our island.

In my experience I see Sihalese chauvinism was more powerful during closed economic period, where the government in power had the support of the left. Many in the Sinhalese left rejected federalism or any form of meaningful territorial devolution (with land, education and police powers) and strongly supported the unitary system in one or another way. Even though the Sinhalese establishment won the war, the forces of globalization may make the Sinhala chauvinist establishment weaker. But then, in many ways cultural forces of globalization may help Tamils because of their transnational character.

In this article I want to narrate the effect of globalization on the Sri Lankan conflict. I am not going to get involved in the ongoing political and economic discussion on the globalization. Sinhalese intellectuals and politicians are still locked in pre-globalization mindset. For them the globalization is only a political economic discourse. But in many ways globalization intensified the cultural integration of the Tamils living in various countries since 1980s and therefore it is much more important for Tamils due to their trans-national existence. Here I only want to discuss three aspects of the effect of globalization on us, mainly through my observations, researches and life experiences.

1. Ethnic relations before globalization in Sri Lanka.
 2.1 How globalization affects transnational cultures such as the Tamils.
 2.2 How it affects the political equations in the nations states where Tamils live such as Sri Lanka.

1. Ethnic relations before globalization in Sri Lanka.

A walk down memory lane: Federal movement of the Tamils and the ‘pro-unitary state’ stand of the left

As a Tamil poet and a student of Socio-politics, in my youth I was a leftwing activist – and also for a few years, a Jaffna university student leader- with revolutionary dreams of creating a federal and socialist Sri Lanka. From a young age onwards I witnessed the growth of Sinhalese chauvinism which eroded our people’s equality, territorial integrity and peace. I also watched the political and ethical degeneration of the ‘pro-unitary state’ left. In those days the Federal Party (Tamil Arasu Katchi) – which was very popular and also the dominant party among Tamils – was the only bloc that advocated federalism in Sri Lanka. My only discontent with Tamil nationalist in the late 1960s and early 1970s was their stand on the burning issue of caste oppression in the Jaffna peninsula. The Tamil nationalist shared an evolutionary view on the caste and gender issues. They said Jaffna society is moving gradually towards caste and gender equality.

I was very sympathetic to their struggle for federalism, but the radical anti-caste struggle led by the left movement had more impact on me. Thus I became a leftist with federalist ideas. Unfortunately throughout the modern history of Sri Lanka there has never emerged a strong federal leftist movement to accommodate Tamil leftist like us. In 1970 after winning some of the basic demands of the anti-caste struggle, left parties started to lose its ground in Northeast, because of their stand on the unitary state. This created a ‘common space’ between the left movement and Sinhala chauvinist establishment and paved the way for opportunistic political collaboration.

The main parties within the ‘unitary left’ movement including the Communist Party (CP), Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and most of the Maoist groups ended up virtually collaborating with the popular centre-right Sinhalese chauvinist party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Due to the fact that the SLFP was seen as more pro-USSR and pro-China, the unitary leftwing ideologist started to invent mediocre theories to say populist Sinhalese chauvinism of SLFP is more progressive than the rightist Sinhala chauvinism of the United National Party (UNP). In 1970s one Tamil Maoist even went to the extent of defending the Sinhala only official language policy in one of his books arguing that Sinhala only is progressive because it replaced colonial English as official language.

In the 1970’s the coalition government of SLFP and unitary left introduced more oppressive laws and measures against Tamils. Among them was the language based standardization that directly affected Tamil youths and provoked them. This scheme demanded more marks for Tamils students than for Sinhalese to enter the universities. This aspect of the standardization seriously affected the chances of the Tamil students getting places in medical and engineering faculties. Area based standardization, which was progressive and helped rural poor, was also introduced as the part of the new recruitment policy of the Sri Lankan universities. But language based standardization was communal and reactionary. The Left was forced to justify language based standardization because of their participation / support for the coalition government led by SLFP. They found a peculiar reason to accuse the agitation from the Tamil students when they said that the ‘area based part’ of the new law was progressive and therefore agitations of the Tamils were labelled as reactionary.

This became the formula of the left to demonize the just struggle of the Tamils. Tamil students filled the streets with peaceful demonstrations against the language based discrimination in higher education. But the government used increased police violence against the peaceful student agitations. This accelerated repression and the institutionalized state terrorism against Tamils, pushed the Tamil youth to go underground or to migrate – in mid 1970s. The big families sent their children involved in agitations to English speaking countries such as UK, Australia and Canada. This initiated the first Tamil immigrant political activities in the west and also the bases for the future refugee migrations and ideas of armed action.

The emergence of a Tamil Diaspora created an important ground for the birth of left wing Tamil militancy that originated in London in the early 70s. Mr. Eliyathamby Ratnasabapathy, the founder of Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) and Mr. Anton Stanislaus Balasingham who later became the advisor of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were also part of these left wing Tamil liberation activists functioned in London in early 70s.

Since the beginning, the Tamil Diaspora was part and parcel of the Tamil liberation politics of North – East of Sri Lanka. Furthermore the ongoing globalization strengthened their role through internationalizing the conflict and enabling smooth generational transmission of the struggle.

In April 1961, the Sri Lankan Government brutally crushed a Gandhian styled non-violent struggle (‘Satyagraha’) of Tamils which virtually paralyzed the North East. Then the Sirimao Bandaranayake government sent in the military under the command of Col. Richard Udagama in order to suppress the non-violent movement. That marked the beginning of the end of parliamentary politics of the Tamils – led by Federal Party. The increasingly ruthless repression of the Sri Lankan government against the peaceful extra parliamentary agitation of the Tamils forced the youth to go underground. Some of them developed contacts with London based Tamil activists which marked the beginning of the armed struggle of the Tamil youth.

By 1970s Tamil youth rejected the politics of elders and their institutions. This created a gap between youth and the people, from the beginning of the armed struggle. These gaps were never eradicated in an institutional way in the Tamil struggle.

In mid 1970s, we leftist in the North-East increasingly became the laughing stock of the Tamil masses. Despite this some of us stood with the banner of socialism and federalism. In popular poet corners, I raised my voice saying ‘We will make Sri Lanka Red and Federal’. In 1975 on Vietnam solidarity poets corner at Jaffna esplanade, I roared with confidence that “my comrades who are going to make even the white house red tomorrow.” In a way those angry days are beautiful and romantic even with all the risks that it involved. TO BE CONTINUED

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