Echoes of the past in a new phase for the Tamil Struggle: #P2P and beyond

Friday, 12 February 2021 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 The fundamental spirit of #P2P echoes that of the first significant post-independence mass-mobilisation in 1956

By Mario Arulthas

Over the last week, thousands of Tamils marched in protest from Pottuvil to Polikandy. The red and yellow flags they carried harked back to a time when Tamils controlled significant areas of the north-east. 

The procession, timed to coincide with Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, was a rejection of the Sri Lankan State’s legitimacy and a reminder that the Tamil people continue to refuse consent to be governed by this State. The demands of the protestors were rooted in the recognition of Tamil nationhood and the Tamil homeland, also calling for international justice for the genocide and action against current violations by the State.

Throughout Sri Lanka’s history, the most consistent form of resistance to the abuses of the State has come from Tamils. Tamil nationalism evolved as a protective mechanism, a bulwark against Sinhala Buddhist nation-building activities, which from the very beginning acted with genocidal determination to destroy the Tamil nation as a collective – first through legislation, then through violence. Tamil national identity was then, as it is now, the main obstacle to the building of a Sinhala Buddhist State. 

Sri Lanka’s conflict is rooted in the contradiction between the two. The way in which Tamil identity manifests itself is a direct challenge to the majoritarian narrative of a Sri Lanka which is inherently Sinhala and Buddhist. Tamil nationalist politics therefore plays an important, even a fundamental, role in reforming the Sri Lankan State. It is in the interest of those who want to see a pluralist democracy to engage with Tamil nationalism as an essential component in the reform project.

The fundamental spirit of #P2P echoes that of the first significant post-independence mass-mobilisation in 1956. A mere eight years after Sri Lanka’s independence, Sinhala mobs, led and encouraged by politicians, embarked on a pogrom following Tamil protests over the Sinhala Only Act. 

Violence began in Colombo, targeting Tamils and their businesses, and later spread, including to the Gal Oya colony where most of the Tamil deaths occurred. Some weeks later, Tamils embarked on concurrent marches, starting in Jaffna, Batticaloa and other towns and villages across the north-east. Their destination was the Federal Party’s annual convention in Trincomalee, a few years earlier declared the capital of the Tamil homeland by Federal Party leader and “Father of the Tamil Nation” S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. 

In Trincomalee, the Federal Party resolved that it would embark on a civil disobedience campaign if its demands for Tamil autonomy, language rights, a halt to Sinhala colonisation in the north-east and the repeal of citizenship laws affecting Up-Country Tamils were not met. The resistance against the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian State had begun in earnest. 

While this resistance has taken both violent and non-violent forms in the 65 years since, it reflects a consistent truth: The Tamil nation, in its homeland in the north-east of the island and abroad, rejects the Sri Lankan State’s attempts to impose Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony on the entire population. 

Although in the immediate post-war period, marked by a vengeful regime, a traumatised people struggled to resist with the same vigour as in the past, the change in government in 2015 gave Tamils some respite and space to build resilience both on the island and within the diaspora. This recovery is apparent in the furious Tamil reaction to the State’s more recent transgressions. 

The State’s hurried agreement to rebuild the Jaffna Mullivaikkal memorial, after local and global outrage by Tamils, was an unexpected concession. But it was no doubt encouraged by domestic protests as well as by warnings sent by several foreign governments who faced an angry Tamil diaspora, primed for swift mobilisation.

The #P2P march followed on from this, marking a new era of bold, direct action. Fuelled by frustrations at the absolute futility of international expectations that Sri Lanka will be able to reform itself, this strengthened, global Tamil confidence, will find new ways to take on the state through non-violent measures. 

Notably, newer demands around the rights of Tamil-speaking minorities have been included, in a welcome move to expand the fold of the Tamil struggle. Sri Lanka’s refusal to abandon the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist project is at the root of not only the mass atrocities committed against Tamils and systematic abuses of the Muslim population, but also the State’s failed economic policies, which affect the entire population. 

The Muslim community in particular has been shaken by the State’s forced cremation of its COVID dead, counter to their religious practices and fundamental rights. A significant number of Muslims took part in the #P2P march – a direct consequence of Tamil nationalist political leadership’s and civil society organisations’ strong statements on these issues over the past year, bringing the communities closer after decades of violence and mistrust. 

The issue of plantation workers’ minimum salary has also been raised by the Up-Country Tamil community in recent years. Both these issues were included in the list of demands around the #P2P protests. 

Hopefully, these moves in the direction of solidarity will herald deeper cooperation around campaigns for the cessation of human rights abuses and accountability for all past crimes. It will help ease the difficult conversations that must be held to heal the rifts between the communities. 

Significant, albeit not surprising, was the absence of any solidarity rallies held in the Sinhala south, an indication of how vast the gulf between the Tamil-speaking people and the Sinhala people is when it comes to justice for human rights violations and the ethnocratic nature of the State.

So, what’s next for the Tamil people? Concessionary politics in the hope for minimal reforms can only go so far. While small gains may have been made under the Yahapalana regime, they quickly fell apart. 

The ethnic divides on the island are deeper than they have been since the post-war period – the true benchmark for the failure of the efforts under the previous Government. #P2P’s mobilisation is a show of strength that sends a message to the government and the international community ahead of the Human Rights Council session in Geneva later this month. 

Further civil disobedience campaigns, in addition to renewed attention by the international community, will continue to act as the primary resistance to the Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy. But Tamils’ persistent rejection of Sinhala hegemony, paired with the deeply entrenched nature of Sinhala supremacy, present a dilemma for those who want to see a united, reconciled Sri Lanka. 

Accountability for past abuses will go a long way to reconcile the people, but ultimately the nature of what Sri Lanka as a State represents must change. Otherwise, its future will look remarkably like its past. 

(The writer is the Strategic Advisor – PEARL and PhD student at SOAS University of London.)