With post-war reconciliation proceeding slowly, a nationalist faction has arisen among Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils. Neville de Silva reports on fears that the island’s bitter history might repeat itself
Some call it ‘Ezhuka Tamil’, others say ‘Ezhuga Thamizh’. Still others refer to it as ‘Eluga Thamil’. But what’s in a name when the meaning – ‘Tamils arise!’ – is clear enough to send alarm bells ringing among some political sections of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist dominant south.
This was the slogan that whipped up emotions in the Tamil heartland of the country’s northern Jaffna peninsula, drawing an estimated 10,000 people to a rally on September 24. How many participated depends on who one listens to; but what is undisputed is that it was the largest protest by the minority Tamils since the Sri Lankan military vanquished the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.
Business shut down in Jaffna, virtually paralysing the northern capital. That strike was in support of the demonstration organised by the Tamil People’s Council (TPC), an obscure political grouping that emerged about a year ago, after Sri Lanka’s 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections had seen a change of government in the country. The Tamil minority voted in large numbers to oust President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose regime had crushed the LTTE, killing many of its leaders and promoting triumphalist annual celebrations to mark the victory over one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist groups.
If the TPC was little known till recently, the Eluga Thamil movement it fathered was completely unknown to most. Preaching the kind of ethno-nationalism that led to the 30-year war, the movement’s sudden sprouting has aroused strong opposition among ultra-nationalists in the Sinhala-majority south, and caused waves among the political mainstream of the northern Tamils.
Some of the demands of Eluga Thamil are familiar. Calls for a Tamil nation, sovereignty and the right to self-determination remain at the heart of Tamil political aspirations, but the majority in the north and east seem resigned to the fact that they are unrealistic and unachievable, at least for now. With the unbearable cost of war a fresh memory on both sides, most Tamils would settle for enough autonomy to run their own lives, and are looking to the government they voted for to fulfil its election pledges and take practical steps towards reconciliation.
Not so resigned, however, are some of the Sri Lankan Tamils now settled in the West – mainly in the UK, Canada and the US – who contributed heavily to the LTTE war machine and are now intent on stirring up ethno-nationalism back home, even enlisting political support from their adopted countries. What has roused concern among some of the majority-Sinhala groups is not so much the basic demands of the Eluga Thamil movement, which they believe will never be granted, but the fiery speeches made at the rally which even some Tamils claim were racist, reviving memories of protests organised by the LTTE when it held sway in the north and east.
Not that Tamils are without post-war grievances. Their lands have been occupied by the military, and restoring them to their rightful owners has been a slow process. Some displaced by the war have still not been resettled, while several people arrested before and after the conflict remain in custody without charge, some for nearly 10 years. Tamils also complain that the security forces are running businesses – from roadside kiosks to hotels – and engage in retail trade that deprives the locals of their livelihoods.
Some of those who ‘disappeared’ during the war or after surrendering to the security forces have still not been accounted for, though the Rajapaksa government appointed a commission to try and trace them and the current government has recently established the Office of Missing Persons to deal with this issue.
Even though some lands have been returned to their owners and the military presence reduced, the process of reconciliation seems sluggish. The emerging northern nationalism blames not only the government but the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a coalition of Tamil parties that swept the parliamentary elections in August last year. It is led by Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, a veteran Tamil politician who was installed as leader of the opposition with the help of the current government.
The more radical TPC, which is supported by some parties in the TNA, accuses the larger grouping of having too cosy a relationship with the government, and not pressing hard enough for solutions to the everyday problems of the northern Tamils. The TPC’s public face is the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, Canagasabapathy Wigneswaran, a retired Supreme Court judge nominated to the post by the TNA, of which he is a member. Never a politician, he now appears to cherish ambitions of political leadership, replacing the ageing Sampanthan.
What has most stoked Sinhala concerns are calls by speakers at the Eluga Thamil rally to end the settlement of Sinhala families in the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces. Tamils view this as an attempt to alter the demographics of those regions, but Sinhalese respond that Tamils are free to live anywhere in the country. Demands to stop erecting statues of the Buddha, when over 65 per cent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, have been denounced as racist.
The same charge has been levelled at recent reports of the formation of a Hindu political group, ‘Siva Senai’ (Siva’s Army), whose declared intention is to protect Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus from ‘other religious groups’, and secure their rightful place in Tamil politics. The party has gained the support of the Mumbai-based Shiva Sena, a far right organisation, stirring fears even within the Tamil community, with some describing it as a ‘regressive development’.
The critical question is whether Eluga Thamil is more than an attempt to occupy the mainstream space in Tamil politics by ousting the TNA. Steering northern politics on to a more radical course, ostensibly in the hope of gaining Tamil youth support, could easily remind a suspicious south of the past consequences of such tactics. In the 1980s, Tamil youth radicalisation put them on a militant course in which they targeted Tamil and national leaders, killed a serving president, almost killed another and assassinated a former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
Eluga Thamil could provoke a reaction from ultra Sinhala-Buddhist groups, which have in recent years shown racial and religious intolerance. Already some are demanding the arrest of Wigneswaran. If the result is a hardening of attitudes on both sides of the ethnic-religious divide, the government might retreat from concessions being discussed in the run-up to constitutional reforms next year.
This time around, aspiring hardline Tamil leaders would not be able to count on the diplomatic support of Western countries which welcomed the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime. They are now seeking to woo Sri Lanka away from China’s influence, a strategic goal that is more important than Tamil confrontationist politics.
Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who worked in Hong Kong for many years in senior roles at The Standard and in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, Le Monde, Asian Wall Street Journal, AFP and other foreign media. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy chief of mission in Bangkok and deputy high commissioner in London.