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Sri Lanka : Ten Myths

By Satya Sagar

04 June, 2009

In the ancient Indian epic Ramayana the Aryan Prince Rama goes all the way from north India to vanquish Ravana, the King of Lanka. Following a massive battle in which thousands are slaughtered Rama, with the help of the monkey god Hanuman, finally rescues his kidnapped wife Sita in a grand victory of ‘good' over ‘evil'.

The Ramayana of the 21 st Century may need a little modification.

In the modern version the Indian Rama and the Lankan Ravana, who turn out to be long lost brothers, together stage the abduction of Sita and accuse the ‘terrorist' Hanuman of the crime. Finally with international support they use every means possible to kill him along with thousands of innocent bystanders.

Adding insult to injury the council of Gods supposed to safeguard the world's conscience not only absolves Rama and Ravana but perversely even applauds them for ‘saving' Sita and winning the ‘War on Terror ‘.

Alas, if this were really the only wonky myth about Sri Lanka in our times! The truth is that over the years and decades dozens of myths have been floated about this island nation's history, politics and conflict.

Many of these myths were created by colonial administrators and ‘scholars' in the period when the British ruled the island. Many more were created by the chauvinist Sinhala elite- of different shades- who have run Sri Lanka for the past sixty years. Some others were born in the fertile minds of the armchair warriors who sit in New Delhi and a few created by the various champions of the Sri Lankan Tamils themselves.

Given below is a list of the top ten myths (in my opinion) about contemporary Sri Lanka , the dispelling of each of which is indispensable to finding a lasting solution to the seemingly perpetual tragedy of its diverse population.

Myth One: The Sri Lankan government is/was at war with the LTTE: This has been the single biggest myth about the Sri Lankan conflict in our time and used as an excuse by many outside to keep quiet about what has been happening all these years in this island country. The LTTE is/was after all a ‘terrorist' organisation banned by the international community and so what as wrong if the Sri Lankan government went to war against them?

The simple truth is that the Sri Lankan conflict is much older than the LTTE itself, which emerged as a force only in the early eighties. The systematic conversion of Sri Lankan Tamils into second-class citizens in their own country or state-sponsored violence against them however dates back to the time of Sri Lankan independence in the late-forties itself.

The recent offensive in the north of Sri Lanka was just a new and more brutal phase of the war that Sri Lankan Sinhala elite have been waging for a long time against Sri Lankan Tamils and indeed all the minorities in the country. And I must add that these minorities are not just linguistic or religious ones but also political as over the decades successive Sri Lankan regimes have also killed – and continue to kill- a very large number of Sinhala people opposed to their policies.

In their quest for power there has been no human norm left unviolated by the Sri Lankan elite, which has managed to murder over 20,000 or more of the country's Tamil citizens in its final assault on the LTTE in May this year. If the LTTE has used terrorist methods to further its cause there is no doubt that the Sri Lankan government has used genocidal methods to put them down.

Myth Two: The Mahinda Rajapakse government has ‘won' the ‘civil war' and successfully prevented the division of Sri Lanka : There is of course nothing ‘civil' about any war but this term implies that the conflict in Sri Lanka is between two groups that belong to the same nation. Maybe this was true upon a time long ago but is certainly not the case any longer.

How many countries around the world do you have governments bombing their own citizens using air power, mobilising tanks, heavy artillery, thousands of ground forces, sophisticated military equipment supplied by foreign governments? How many governments herd all citizens of a linguistic minority into concentration camps to be treated as terrorists simply because of their identity? And after doing all this what right do they have to call themselves ‘one nation'?

What we are today witnessing in Sri Lanka is indeed a war between two separate nations. Whether the regime in Colombo realizes this or not by their own actions over the years they have made Tamil Eelam a reality today. The defeat of the LTTE is not the defeat of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka . Nor is it the end of their quest for dignity, against racist discrimination and the right to self-determination.

There comes a point in every relationship when divorce becomes inevitable and the only alternative to separation is gross murder. That time has arrived in Sri Lanka today. The future of the Tamil people should be urgently decided by a internationally monitored referendum on whether or not they want to be part of a united Sri Lanka .

Myth Three: The creation of a Tamil Eelam will damage the interests of the rest of Sri Lanka : In fact the opposite is likely to happen if Sri Lanka 's Tamils are given the right to self-determination and form their own country. Either they will fail miserably and clamour to become part of a future Sri Lankan federation on their own accord or succeed brilliantly and create a prosperous neighbourhood that benefits everyone. If a group of Tamil guerillas could make fighter aircraft while hiding in the forests of Vanni imagine what they can achieve in peacetime.

At the same time the proponents of Tamil Eelam will also have to remember that independence does not mean all their problems will be solved automatically. They will have to deal with the divisions of caste, religion, class within the Tamil population and also demonstrate to the world that they treat all minorities in their midst as equal citizens unlike the Sri Lankan state they have opposed so bitterly all these years.

Also any Tamil Eelam will geographically forever remain on the same island- after all Eelam can't be physically carried away to Australia or Canada . In the long run the Tamil and Sinhala people, along with every other community on the island of what is currently called ‘Sri Lanka' today will have to come to terms with each other and live in harmony - as perpetual war can only mean collective suicide.

Myth Four: The Sri Lankan Tamils will gang up with Indian Tamils and create a ‘Greater Tamil' nation: For all the light and sound produced in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu about the fate of their ‘Tamil brothers and sisters' in Sri Lanka the fact remains – beyond the usual rhetoric- they have not really done much for them. Over the past twenty years there are thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees languishing in Tamil Nadu without proper shelters, livelihood, education for their children or even safety from arbitrary arrest by local police. The Indian government has repeatedly turned down calls to sign international treaties on rights of refugees and the politicians of Tamil Nadu – busy bargaining for their place in the Indian cabinet- don't care a damn.

Similarly, soon after independence from British rule when the then Sri Lankan government, in one of its first vile acts, disenfranchised over a million Indian Tamils working in the country's tea plantations there was not a murmur of protest from the then leaders of the Sri Lanka 's Tamils. They were ‘Indian Tamils' after all and that too poor workers to boot.

The point I am trying to make is that Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils have different histories, outlooks and priorities and cannot be simplistically conflated into one phrase ‘Tamil people'. The fact is that the problem of the Sri Lankan Tamils is not a ‘Tamil' issue at all- it is a problem common to many linguistic, ethnic, religious and other minorities around the world. While indeed the people who are suffering today in Sri Lanka are the Tamil speaking population of that country their primary identity is that of an oppressed people fighting for their rightful place under the sun and not as Tamil speakers alone.

In that sense what is being murdered in Sri Lanka is not just the Tamil population but the very concept of humanity itself, an issue that should agitate the entire world. To make my stand clear I would say that if the Sinhala people had been a minority in Sri Lanka and the Tamils had been the racist oppressors I would have appealed to the world to fight for the rights of the Sinhalese.

Myth Five: Sri Lanka has a special place in world Buddhism and its territorial integrity needs to be protected by the Sinhala people: From whatever little I know, the Buddha became what he did only by giving up his entire kingdom in the search for truth and the salvation of humankind. In the process he in fact conquered the entire world. What the current day proponents of religious nationalism in Sri Lanka are promoting is a crude kind of ‘landlordism' and certainly not ‘Buddhism', which has nothing to do with ownership of property.

The idea of the Sinhala elite being champions of Buddhism – a religion of compassion, peace and tolerance - is also simply laughable given their historical record of taking so many lives. Ultimately you are a Buddhist only by what you do in practice and not by wearing saffron robes, chanting a few mantras in Pali or Sanskrit or building large and expensive monuments to the Buddha.

Two thousand years ago the great Emperor Ashoka became a Buddhist when he repented for the massacres he committed in the war on the Kingdom of Kalinga . Today the Sinahala chauvinists, many of whom claim their ancestry back to the very same Kalinga, are exiting from Buddhism through the genocide they have committed against the Tamil people. These champions of Buddhism have no doubt become its greatest destroyers.

Myth Six: Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and outsiders should not interfere: Sri Lanka used to be a sovereign country once upon a time when they were not at war with their own people. The fact is that whenever the Sri Lankan regimes have been in deep trouble they have always violated their own sovereignty to seek help from other countries to help prop up their rule.

In 1971 the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government sought and obtained the help of the Indian navy together with the Pakistani air force to put down the JVP rebellion- mainly consisting of Sinhala youth fighting for revolutionary change in their country. Today in their war against the Tamils the Sri Lankan regime is supported by the governments of India , Pakistan , China , Russia and Israel while the entire Lankan economy depends on regular infusions of aid and cash from the IMF, World Bank, Japan or the European Union. It is also worth mentioning that the conflict on this island over the decades has sent thousands of Tamil citizens fleeing the country into exile all over the globe. So for all the touchiness of its leaders against ‘foreign interference' what is happening in Sri Lanka is really an international conflict and the people of the world have as much right to interfere there as their governments.

Myth Seven: A majority of the Sinhalese people are racists and chauvinists: Sinhala chauvinism was inevitable in a country where the Sinhala population is in a majority and every politician has to stoke nationalist, ethnic or religious passions to win his/her election. So whether you were a practicing Buddhist or not or knew even how to speak Sinhala properly or really loved your motherland you had to be a ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalist' in order to succeed in politics.

There is no real history of Sinhala-Tamil conflict before the formation of the Sri Lankan ‘nation' artificially carved out of their ‘Raj' by the hastily departing British colonialists in 1948. For most ordinary Sinhalese, like ordinary folk everywhere, the main concern is livelihood or love and the quest for a better life denied to them by their own elites.

But so venal have been the feudal Sri Lankan families that inherited power from the British that they chose to divide and destroy their motherland rather than give up power- political, economic or social- to the ordinary men and women of their land.

If one looks at the results of the 2005 presidential election in Sri Lanka the hawkish Mahinda Rajapakse won only by a slender margin of 50.29% of the overall votes against 48.43% for former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, who had signed a peace deal with the LTTE in 2002. Since the Tamil population largely boycotted the election what this clearly shows that close to half the Sinhala voters preferred peace over war when they voted for Ranil.

Today most of these Sinhala people are also being held hostage by the fascist Rajapakse regime, which has turned Sri Lankan nationalism into a family-run dictatorship guarded by guns purchased with the people's own hard earned money. The fact that there are still enough Sri Lankan journalists and human rights activists willing to die to preserve democracy in their country is evidence that human decency is still not dead everywhere on this troubled island. The entire world should come to the support of these brave people fighting one of the most murderous regimes in recent history.

Myth Nine - The Indian government, once supportive of the Sri Lankan Tamils, has turned against them: The truth is that the Indian government does not really care for either the Sri Lankan Tamils or the Sinhalese for that matter. Like in most countries of South Asia successive Indian regimes too have only been bothered about preserving the power of the corporate or feudal elites and care little for their ordinary citizens.

New Delhi in that sense is not the capital of India but the seat of the Indian Empire inherited from the Mughals and the British by the ‘Brown Sahibs' of today. And among the nefarious things these Johnnies have been up to all these years is bullying neighbouring governments and playing games with the lives of their people - especially those that don't ‘stand up and obey'.

So the Indian regimes in the past supported the Tamil struggle, including through military assistance and training, when they wanted to put the then Sri Lankan government in ‘its place'. Later on when their priorities changed – for various reasons chief among which was the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi- they dumped the Tamils and started cultivating the Sinhala elite.

The lip sympathy for Tamils across the Palk Straits that still emanates now and then from New Delhi is solely because of the compulsions of electoral politics in Tamil Nadu- where politicians routinely play political football with the hopes and aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Once elections are over it is back to the usual indifference to the fate of thousands of people being pulverised by the genocidal Sri Lankan state.

Myth Ten – Governments around the world do not care what happens to the Sri Lankan Tamils: Many of them actually they care so much that they will not do anything to help the Tamils form their own nation. For many governments – from India to Israel and China to Russia- Tamil Eelam becoming a reality would set a ‘bad example' to their own restive minorities. Hence their all out support to the ruthless Sri Lankan government, who they believe is showing them ‘the way' how to deal with dissent of all kinds within their borders.

Western nations, that themselves have the blood of innocent civilians on their hands in Iraq , Afghanistan and elsewhere, also care- but only about their own global image. Making noise about upholding human rights after the genocide has been carried out allows to them to appear to be ‘civilised' without having to take any meaningful action.

After all it was quite clear that a colossal human tragedy was in the offing for the past three months. If the UK , EU and the US had put their combined might together to warn the Rajapakse government properly the Sri Lankan lion- for all its bravado- would have squeaked like a trapped mouse.

The fact is that the Sri Lankan Tamils today can expect genuine support for their cause only from other people around the world facing similar racist discrimination or fighting for autonomy and self-determination. That is not such a bad thing, as looking across the globe such people probably constitute well over half the planet's population.

There are the Palestinians, the Tibetans, the Burmese, the Kashmiris and people of the Indian North-East, the Baluchis, the Pashtuns, the Chechens, the Basques, the Puerto Ricans, the Scots—and lots more. If Sri Lanka 's Tamils can join hands with all these struggles for dignity and equality it would be a good start indeed to make a fresh bid for Tamil Eelam!

Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer, video maker based in New Delhi . He can be contacted at

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