Sri Lanka: inter-communal problems and their solution

Twenty-six years ago, at the beginning of the conflict in Sri Lanka, we wrote an article denouncing the Sri Lankan government’s policy of discrimination against the Tamils but at the same time pointing out the incorrectness of the demand for self-determination, both in point of theory and practicability, for the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Twenty-six years and more than 70,000 deaths later, events have proved our viewpoint to be correct.  We take no pleasure in making this assertion.  What is scandalous is that the so-called left have learnt nothing from these past 26 years of tragic conflict in Sri Lanka and continue to mouth mindlessly the demands for self-determination for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.  This is both theoretically incorrect and extremely reactionary in practice.

We are reproducing below the article that we published in our September 1983 issue, for it still points to the way forward for all Sri Lankans, Tamils as well as Sinhalese.



Economic crisis

On Sunday 24 July [1983], the ambush by the Tamil Tigers, a separatist Tamil organisation in Sri Lanka, of a military patrol in which 13 soldiers were killed near Jaffna, the main centre for Tamils in the north of the island, provided the perfect pretext for the government-inspired pogrom against the Tamil minority that followed this ambush. The UNP government of President Junius Jayawardene is in deep economic and political trouble and its economic policies are in a shambles.  In 1982, Sri Lanka’s current account balance of payments deficit rose to $490 million and was attributed to poor exports and the rising level of imports.  Its total external debt in January 1983 stood at $1.7 billion.  The economic plight of the Sri Lankan masses – both Tamil and Sinhalese – is extremely miserable.  The impending austerity measures, by which the exploiting classes of Sri Lanka hope to solve this economic crisis through passing all its burden to the masses of poor people, will make their plight even more unbearably miserable.  The government of President Jayawardene has for quite some time been looking for a scapegoat.  The ambush of 13 soldiers came in as a gift from heaven and provided the perfect setting for unleashing an anti-Tamil orgy of violence, looting, burning, pillage and murder.  The government is engaged in a calculated and cynical act of diverting the frustration and anger of the Sinhalese masses, whom it has betrayed, against the Tamil minority.

Orgy of death and destruction

In last month’s orgy of death and destruction, between 400 and 600 people, mostly Tamil, were done to death.  What is significant about these murders is that either the security forces took direct part in these heinous, racist and chauvinist crimes, or indirectly aided these crimes by initiating them or standing by as helpless onlookers while the mobs, spurred on by the government and army-inspired Sinhala chauvinism, set to work on their unfortunate victims with surgical, not to say devilish, efficiency.  52 Tamil political prisoners, including Kuttimani and Jegan, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the maximum security at Welikada, were massacred on 1 August in their cells by the security forces who, having committed this foul deed, put out that the prisoners had died in two spontaneous ‘prison riots’ at the hands of some Sinhalese convicts who, having been angered by the news of the death of 13 soldiers at the hands of Tamil separatists, wanted to take revenge on the Tamil political prisoners.  More than 80 Tamils were killed by the troops in the north and more than 200 others were killed by the mobs in Sinhalese areas.

Tamil houses, shops and businesses were systematically looted and burned down, in some cases whole areas going up in flames.  While groups of Sinhalese thugs, according to eye witnesses, were stopping vehicles, beating up their Tamil occupants, setting fire to the vehicles and robbing the Tamils of all their possessions, the soldiers in army trucks that passed by, far from stopping these thugs, were waving at them and encouraging them, while and the thugs were shouting ‘victory’ (Jayawera) to the soldiers.  Soldiers in civilian clothes also actively participated in or initiated the attacks on Tamils.  When the government, after a good many hours of unmitigated arson, looting and murder, imposed the curfew, the police and the army, instead of using their authority to shoot the looters after a warning, only used their bullets to open gates and doors of Tamil shops and homes that the looting thugs were unable to open with the aid of sticks or iron bars.  The army and the police appeared to find eternal satisfaction at the sight of Sinhalese looters carrying off their loot – bales of textiles, bottles of brandy and beer, rice and sugar – and going about happily on a Tamil-catching spree.  According to the Sunday Times of 31 July 1983, “On Tuesday night [26 July] 130 men of the navy garrison in Trincomalee, the major port on the east coast, broke open the armoury.  They then entered the town, which has a mixed population of Singhalese and Tamils, and shot up parts of it … They only agreed to return to barracks the following morning after they had received guarantees against disciplinary action.”

In a short space of between a week to 10 days, the Sinhalese mobs spurred on by the government-inspired anti-Tamil hysteria, and actively encouraged and assisted by the ‘law enforcement’ machinery and ‘security’ forces, put their torches to thousands of carefully targeted Tamil factories, shops and houses.  The purpose was to dislodge the Tamils from what the Sinhalese chauvinists regard as “their disproportionate influence over the Sri Lankan economy” by way of a ‘final solution’ to the Tamil problem.  If the crude and thuggish elements use terms such as the ‘final solution’, the sophisticated and suave Sinhalese bourgeois say the same thing by talking about the need for “restoration of the rights of the Sinhalese majority”.  “The Tamils have dominated the commanding heights of everything good in Sri Lanka,” shrieks the Cambridge-educated finance minister, Mr Ronnie de Mel.   There seems to be operating a kind of division of labour between the government and the Sinhalese mobs.  The latter go on the rampage and loot and destroy the property and businesses owned by Tamils, while the former then goes on to expropriate all damaged properties under all kinds of hypocritical pretexts, but with the real aim of effecting a decisive shift in the balance of economic power in Sri Lanka from Tamils to Sinhalese.

Damage to the economy

The above chauvinistic policy of terrorising the Tamil minority, far from bringing any material benefits to the Sinhalese masses, will, on the contrary, only serve to damage the precarious economy of Sri Lanka and thus make the conditions of the masses, both Tamil and Sinhalese, even worse than they are today.  According to The Economist of 20-26 August 1983, “The preliminary estimate of $150 million worth of damage [caused by anti-Tamil mobs] to commercial and residential property – equivalent to about 4% of Sri Lanka’s GNP – is almost certainly too low, because it is based on book value; replacement costs might be five to ten times higher.  It also excludes the value of stocks, lost output and lost export orders.”  Continues The Economist, “The destruction of nine coconut mills for example, could cost Sri Lanka its position as the world’s second largest exporter of coconut oil.”  Seventeen industrial units were destroyed in the Colombo area alone, with a loss of 6,000 jobs.  Most of these factories were manufacturing export goods, with the consequent loss of hard currency.  Add to this the loss that will inevitably be suffered by the tourism industry and the brain-drain of Tamils, and you get a complete picture of the devastation caused by Sinhalese chauvinism.  Thousands of Tamil professionals are said to have left the country since the violence began last month.  One leading Tamil entrepreneur estimates that 90% of his fellow-industrialists are now contemplating emigration.  If they go, Sir Lanka will lose more than their capital assets, many of which went up in smoke last month.  It will lose commercial instincts and management skills.  The only gainers from this devastation will be a handful of Sinhalese bourgeois who will probably lay claim to businesses which have hitherto been run by Tamils.

Who is to blame?

President Jayawardene’s government, instead of condemning the Sinhalese mobs and the ‘security’ forces for systematic acts of arson, looting and murder, has had the audacity to blame it all on the Tamil minority.  In a radio broadcast on 28 July, the President said that “…the time has come to accede to the clamour and natural request of the Sinhala people”.  It appears that the desire of the Sinhala people is not merely that the country cannot be divided, but also to see to it that the Tamil minority is stripped of its already dwindling civic rights, for, since the President’s broadcast, not only has legislation been enacted making it illegal to call for a separate Tamil state, but also, to repeat, the government has started a process of wholesale confiscation of businesses formerly owned by Tamils.  Under the above legislation, a number of parties, including the main opposition (Tamil) party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), with its 17 members in parliament, has been outlawed.  Breaches of the ban, including membership of offending parties, are, under the legislation, to be met with penalties ranging from loss of civic rights to confiscation of property, life imprisonment, or the death penalty.  Those infringing this legislation are to be forbidden to hold public office, to practise their professions or to join any movements or organisations.  By taking this step on 30 July by way of placating the Sinhalese mobs, still rioting, burning, looting and murdering at the expense of the Tamil minority, the government of Sri Lanka has given its endorsement to the blood bath.

The government has also blamed the riots on foreign conspirators, whose object, it says, was to destroy the economy and overthrow the government.  In substantiation of this assertion we have only to government’s word, to wit, further assertions.  No credible proof has been given.   We must therefore seek the real reasons behind these riots elsewhere.

Sinhalese and Tamils have lived side by side for centuries without resorting to communal violence, which is a relatively new phenomenon.  In medieval times, the separation of the two communities, in human terms, was rarely as rigid as tradition suggests and more than one Sinhalese King was in fact a Tamil.  During nearly four centuries of foreign rule (Portuguese from 1594-1638; Dutch from 1638-1796; British from 1796-1948), Sri Lanka witnessed hardly any communal tension between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.  Although the 1930’s gave rise to religious and linguistic revivalism on the past of the Ceylonese people, this revivalism was only an integral part of the growth of nationalism directed against Christian missionary teaching and as an expression of revolt by the people literate in Sinhala, but not in English, against the privileges of the English-speaking élite.  British governments’ reliance on English as the language of administration had fostered the dominance of a small class of English-speaking civil servants and professionals.  In this, by a historical accident, the Tamils had a preponderance disproportionate to their numbers because the Tamil areas in the north were less developed in agriculture and industry, forcing young men to seek careers in the public service or the professions in the south, and also because the prominence of missionary activity in Jaffna had created a sound educational base in English.  But in the last decades of British rule, the emphasis was gradually switched to vernacular education.  Popular schooling created mass literacy in vernacular languages and the consequent demand that the administration should be conducted in the vernacular.  The Swabasha or ‘our own language’ movement became a central part of the nationalist movement.  So it can be seen that the Swabasha movement was directed against the English-speaking elite and, in the final analysis, against British colonial rule over the people of Ceylon.  In no way was it a movement directed against the Tamils who, side by side with their Sinhalese compatriots, took part in the movement for Ceylonese independence.

So what and who has brought matters to such a pass that the TULF has, as a part of its programme, adopted the demand for a separate Tamil state?  Leaving aside for a moment the legitimacy or otherwise of this demand, and the correctness or incorrectness of TULF’s tactics, it has to be admitted that the main responsibility for this sad and messy state of affairs lies with the Singhalese bourgeois politicians and the successive Ceylonese governments who, being unable to fulfil their promises to the people for a better life and in order to cover their betrayal, have sought to divert the anger of the Sinhalese masses against the Tamil minority.  Bourgeois electioneering, with its attendant demagogy, appeals to communalism and the exploitation of religious, linguistic and cultural diversity, has seen to it that Sinhalese chauvinism is roused and unleashed on the Tamil minority, and that the Sinhalese masses blame their misery and wretchedness on the Tamils rather than the local exploiters – both Sinhalese and Tamil – and their imperialist masters.


Successive Ceylonese governments have been guilty of committing acts of blatant discrimination against the Tamils.  One of the first acts of the newly-independent government was to make most of the so-called Indian Tamils (numbering just over a million) effectively stateless persons under the Citizenship Act of 1949.  The net result of the above measures was that out of a million plantation workers, who were every bit Ceylonese, though of Tamil origin, only 140,000 obtained citizenship.  In revising the electoral registers for the central Ceylon districts for 1950, Tamil names were simply left out, leaving the onus on anyone who wanted his name reinstated to prove his citizenship under the new rules.  After this disenfranchisement, eight Tamil members of parliament from the plantation areas were duly replaced by Sinhalese.

In the 1956, the Bandarnaike government pushed through the Official Language Act, declaring that “the Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon”.  This was followed by the 1972 Republican Constitution which made ‘Sinhala only’ the basis of administration, ignoring completely the needs and wishes of the Tamil minority and in complete violation of the promises made to the Tamils at the time of independence.  Public servants were discriminated against on language grounds; not only were incentive bonuses offered for passing Sinhala examinations, but also periodic promotions were withheld from those who would not take them: in some cases notices of compulsory retirement on language grounds were served on those Tamil officials who had failed to learn Sinhala.

Also in 1972, the government instituted, in the field of education, the system of ‘standardisation’ under which marks obtained by candidates for university are weighted by giving advantage to certain linguistic groups and/or certain districts, the purpose again being to discriminate against the minority in the field of employment, particularly in the administrative service,  the professions and the armed forces.

It is these discriminatory policies and acts of the successive Ceylonese governments which have inspired and created the Tamil-bating Sinhalese chauvinism by seeking to persuade everyone that the real problems of Ceylon lay in the Tamil minority and that once this minority had been dealt with everything would be rosy in the Ceylonese garden.  No wonder, then, that this government-whipped-up anti-Tamil hysteria should have found, in the absence of a strong revolutionary working-class movement, a ready response among the poor, downtrodden, ignorant Sinhalese masses and created the communal violence periodically, beginning with 1956, through 1958 and 1979 to 1983, in which Tamils were the victims of organised and systematic violence and butchery.  It is also these discriminatory practices, in the absence too of a strong working-class revolutionary leadership among the Tamils, which have produced Tamil separatism.  Mr Walter Swarz of The Guardian has justly remarked that “the degree of self-conscious nationalism on the part of the Tamils is relatively new”. It is anti-Tamil hysteria and Tamil-basing Sinhalese chauvinism which has not merely strengthened bourgeois Tamil nationalism, but even produced the urge for a separate state, for until 1975, secession was never a serious demand.  The subsequent riots of 1979 and 1983 have merely served to strengthen this Tamil urge for separation.  President Jayawardene’s government, instead of looking into Tamil grievances and removing their causes, has in typical fashion sought to safeguard the unity of Ceylon by outlawing the advocacy of secession.  On the one hand this government is against the division of Ceylon, on the other hand, by instigating pogroms against the Tamil minority, not only does it produce a desire on the part of the Tamils for separation, but also, through pogroms, forces tens of thousands of Tamils in the south of the country to flee to the Jaffna area in the north, which is already a Tamil stronghold, thus effecting a de facto partition of the country.

Separation no solution

Various solutions to this problem have been put forward, but the most absurd are those that call for a division of the country and the creation of a separate Tamil-speaking state in the north.  That this demand should be put forward by the bourgeois leadership of TULF and the so-called Tamil Tigers and their bourgeois supporters elsewhere is understandable.  That people who call themselves socialists, and even swear by Marxism-Leninism, should support such a demand in the case of Ceylon is nothing short  of a betrayal of socialism and a mockery of it.  And this is precisely what is being done by some of them.  Although the Labour Herald of 19 August publishes an interview, without a single word of its own against it, with a certain Dr Amugum, a leading member of the Tamil community in Britain, in which the Doctor advocates partition, and though the Socialist Action (a weekly paper of the Trotskyite Socialist League, formerly the International Marxist Group – IMG) of 18 August uses expressions like “self-determination” in this context, the sole ‘honour’ of supporting a separate Tamil-speaking state belongs to the Trotskyite Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP).

The WRP, never in any doubt of its r-r-revolutionary credentials (what a bliss ignorance can be), in its paper News Line of Saturday 30 July, open its leading article with the following paragraph:

The WRP and the daily ‘News Line’ condemn the racist pogrom against the Tamil nation launched by the reactionary government of President Junius Jayawardene in Sri Lanka.   We call for the immediate establishment of a Tamil Eelam state in the north and east of the island in accordance with the wishes of the Tamil people” [our emphasis throughout].

First and foremost, the luminaries of the WRP assume precisely that which has to be proved, namely, whether the Tamils of Sri Lanka constitute a nation or not.  What then is a nation?

A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make up manifested in a community of culture”.  In order not to unduly offend our WRP friends, we deliberately omit the name of the author of this definition.

Applying the above scientific criteria, it is clear that the Tamils of Sri Lanka do not constitute now, and have never constituted in the past, a nation, for they, along with the Sinhalese, are a historically evolved stable community of people (which has nothing whatever to do with the racial features or origins of such a community), sharing a common territory, possessing an internal economic bond which welds the various parts of a nation into a single whole, and having a special spiritual complexion and a national culture, which is Ceylonese.  Although some Tamils may not be able to write Sinhala, most of them understand it and almost all of them would learn it in no time were it not for discrimination and violence practised against them from 1948 onwards.

If one looks at the map of Sri Lanka, one finds Tamils living all over the country, albeit there are special pockets of the country with a greater concentration of Tamils.  These pockets of Tamil concentration are Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Puttalam, the tea-growing Kandyian uplands and certain districts of Colombo.  Of all these pockets, only Jaffna can be described as solidly Tamil, though even Jaffna had 20,402 Sinhalese in it, according to the 1971 figures, compared with a Tamil population of 673,043. Batticaloa has a 2-1 majority of Tamils, but is separated from Jaffna by Trincomalee, whose population is nearly equally divided.  These places are in turn physically separated from the tea-growing Kandyan uplands, and the latter are further still removed from the said districts of Colombo.  The problem is further complicated by the fact that of the 3 million Tamils, just over a half are the so-called Ceylon Tamils, concentrated in the Jaffna area and In Colombo.  The rest are the so-called Indian Tamils who were brought as indentured labourers by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries to work on the tea plantations, and who are concentrated in the Kandy uplands.  How is the promised Trotskyist land, Tamil Eelam, to be carved out? Will it be by having more than one Tamil state, or will it be by a mass movement and uprooting of whole populations from one area to another along communal lines as witnessed during the partition of India? One has merely to ask these questions to realise the grotesquely reactionary nature of the ‘solution’ offered by the ‘Marxists’ of the WRP.  In the WRP scheme of things, Ulster, not to mention large tracts of South Africa, would become a nation!!

In any case, this Tamil Eelam, in the unlikely event of it coming into existence, could not survive economically, for the areas in the north and east are insufficient to support 3 million Tamils.  And if they are not to support all the Tamils, but only those living in the north and east, this statelet would be no solution to the problems of Tamils living elsewhere in Sri Lanka.  Furthermore, this Tamil Eelam would be bereft of the Sri Lankan exports which really matter: tea, rubber, gems and coconuts, being merely left to live on the export of rice, chillies, onions and fish – on the supposition that there would be any of these commodities left over for export after feeding 3 million people.  Thus it can be seen that the Tamils, not being a nation, are not entitled to the right of self-determination; nor would it be in their interests to exercise such a right even if they possessed it.


In our view, the best solution to the problem is that the government of Sri Lanka be pressed to accede to the following legitimate demands of the Tamil community:

1.        The Citizenship Act of 1948 be revised so as to confer citizenship on all those Tamils who were rendered stateless under this and related enactments.

2.        All those Tamils disenfranchised under the Election Amendment Act of 1949 should be re-enfranchised;

3.        Discrimination in education and employment should be ended;

4.        Tamil should be made a language of administration side by side with Sinhala, at least in those areas where the Tamils are heavily concentrated, and facilities for teaching it in schools should be freely available in all areas of the country; and all public pronouncements and regulations should be published in both languages.

Only in this way would it be possible to safeguard the position of the majority while, at the same time, meeting reasonably the fears of the minority.  This, and this alone, constitutes the democratic solution to the problem.  This is the only way forward for the reconciliation of the two embittered communities.

Of course, the above demands will not be easily granted by the Ceylonese bourgeois government which in the past ahs done much to inspire Sinhalese chauvinism and instigate violence against the Tamils in order to divert the attention of the masses from the economic problems facing them, and to cover betrayals by successive government of the promises made to the people during elections.

For the above demands to be realised, it is essential for the working-class leadership – among the Sinhalese and the Tamils – to pick up the gauntlet, work together and build a powerful movement of the Ceylonese working class which leads the entire people in their struggle for a better future.  This may sound like pie in the sky, but there is no other and easier way round it, for the Tamil ‘problem’ is an inextricable part of the general struggle of the Ceylonese masses for the overthrow of the Ceylonese exploiters and their imperialist masters.  The latter are using the Tamil question for dividing and weakening the mass movement in Sri Lanka with the object of prolonging their decrepit and senile rule.  The working class and the masses of Sri Lanka must counter and render nugatory this filthy game by building a united and powerful revolutionary movement, which doubtless would sweep away the scourge of local and foreign exploiters. 

The road is a difficult one, but the prize at the end is worth fighting for.

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