Sri Lanka’s Complex Background: Correcting & Amplifying Sheridan and Gotābhaya

Michael Roberts, … with highlighting emphasis in red now added

Invited to Sri Lanka by the government Greg Sheridan, a senior journalist of conservative leanings in The Australian stable, brought together some of the themes pressed by the Defence Secretary and KP Pathmanathan of NERDO in illuminating ways. The news item was/is aimed at an Australian audience.[1] This constituency is not well-informed about the settlement patterns and complexities of the Sri Lankan scenario. It will therefore be misled by some facets of the reportage because of the part-truths and oversimplifications incorporated therein.

Such an exercise in empirical correction can be seen as pedantic nit-picking if pursued by itself; but each such corrective is pursued here with further elaborations in order to bring out the complexities of the Sri Lankan situation (and its recent history) for those not versed in the context. It also enables me to amplify some striking motifs within the Sheridan overview. As these issues are not always connected with each other my essay will be composed in point form with segments numbered A, B, C, et cetera.

Aficianados who have read Sheridan’s article are likely to attribute the greatest weight to his summary of the reasons for the Tamil liberation struggle as conveyed in part through KP’s commentary on the factors generating the conflict within Sri Lanka. This is a huge topic. Invariably readers would evaluate any bald summary in conflicting ways. For me to engage in such an exercise is futile.

It is also unnecessary. I anticipated the heightening of the split and identified obstacles in the path of political accommodation as early as 1976/78 (see Roberts 1978);[2] while my most recent assessment is embodied within “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” in the E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24. Moreover, this type of survey has been preceded by a cluster of articles collected from several scholars in books which I edited under the auspices of the Marga Research Institute in 1979 and again in 1997 and 1998. There are numerous older studies by WH Wriggins, Urmila Phadnis, Robert Kearney, James Jupp, BH Farmer, KM de Silva, S Arasaratnam; and, more recently, essays or books by Nira Wickremasinghe, J. Spencer, Lakshmanan Sabaratnam, David Rampton and Neil De Votta besides others. Distilling this work on the factors that generated the Sinhala-Tamil confrontations over time in a few words is a tall order. It is not the arena that I wish to address here.

I focus instead on distinct ‘twigs’ and ‘branches’ within the Sheridan product.

A. “The Sinhalese-Tamil division is the central fault line of Sri Lankan history. They follow different religions — the Sinhalese are Buddhists, the Tamils are Hindus…. (Sheridan). A2. This note could mislead Australians. The Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist; but way back in 1921 the census tabulated the proportion of Christian Sinhalese as 9.0 per cent and the proportion of Christian Tamils as 11.7 per cent. Recent enumerations avoid cross-tabulation, but my surmise is that the percentage of Christians among Sinhalese will be around 7 per cent while that among Tamils will be around 11 or 12 per cent. Within the Christian minority among both ethnic communities the Catholics constitute a substantial majority and have concentrations in some localities. In recent decades various Pentecostal churches have made inroads into the existing Christian collections and perhaps attracted a few more converts from the Buddhist and Hindu peoples. A3. The Christians constituted a significant section of the emerging Sri Lankan bourgeoisie and middle classes in the 19th and 20th centuries – with their disproportionate influence being most pronounced among the Tamils. A4. As critically, the SL Tamil Christians have been a powerful strand within both the parliamentary and militant strands of Tamil political action from the 1940s till today. Catholic clerics have been among the firebrand spokespersons for the LTTE from the outset. A significant number of the Tiger suicide attackers – māvīrar now—have been Catholic or Christians of other denominations.[3] In brief, most of the churches in Sri Lanka have been divided on ethnic lines.

B. “The situation is complicated by the presence of 50 million Tamils next door in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.” The population of Tamilnadu is even larger: an estimated 74,319,357 in 2013, rising from 73,221,042 in 2012. Here Sheridan makes a vital point which Australians and Tamils everywhere need to absorb. It has two dimensions. Firstly, read with attention to conditioning factors in a causal process, such a feature highlights a force that so many scholars (e. g. Robert Kearney 1967, 1973) have identified as a factor that informed the failure of Sinhalese political parties to share power in some measure with Tamil parties: namely, the fact that the Sinhalese are a majority in Lanka who have a sense of being an endangered minority in the immediate geo-political arena (also Roberts 1978). Secondly, this feature highlights an important issue for all those in Australia, from Kingsbury to Haigh to Lynch to Brian Seneviratne et cetera, who insist on the validity of the SL Tamil demand for a separate state.[4] The problem is that such an independent state (or nearly state) would then set up an irredentist situation for the Republic of India. B2. The outcome is a certain one: the Republic of India will look askance at a neighbour, the state of Eelam, which could stimulate and then materially sustain a campaign for separate statehood for Tamilnadu (with all its domino implications for the unity of India for those inclined towards futuristic evaluations). B3. Before India faces such a threat, however, one would have a political scenario where the state of Eelam and the rump state of Sri Lankan would be smashing each other to smithereens in Wars Five, Six and Seven as friction heightens over border delimitations, water distribution and electricity allocation. This is a prediction directed by common sense not fancy. B4. Such prospects, both B2 and B3, would have been, in my surmise, future probabilities if the LTTE had secured a firm de jure status that consolidated the de facto statehood that Thamilīlam under the LTTE enjoyed from 1990 to 2009. Be it noted that the state of Thamilīlam that existed from 1990-2009 was, as Keerawella notes, an “overt mono-ethnic state” directed by a “totalistic perception” of its requirements (2013: 7). The mass eviction of local Tamil-speaking Muslims from the Jaffna Peninsula, Mannar and everywhere in Tiger territory in late 1990 was just one manifestation of this dominant tendency.

C. As his own evaluation Sheridan tells the Australian audience that “the Tamil Tigers were the most supremely deadly and effective terrorist group to emerge at any time in the second half of the 20th century. They pioneered two terrorist innovations — suicide bombings, later copied by al-Qa’ida, and child soldiers and child terrorists.” This is not far off course, but two adjustments can be inserted before moving towards a clarification of the LTTE’s highly innovative military strategies and the development of sacrificial commitment among its fighters and citizenry.

vp + B-tiger homagePirapāharan pays homage to the Black Tigers on Black Tiger Day, 5 July

C2. Sheridan is in error. The first suicide attacks of the contemporary period in world history actually occurred in Beirut on 23 October 1983 when two explosive-laden trucks were driven into barracks occupied by American and French troops by mujahid from a relatively obscure group called “Islamic Jihad” – assaults which left 299 servicemen dead. C3. The first Tiger suicide attack took place on 5 July 1987 when a Tiger soldier from the locality, one Valipuram Vasanthan, who bore the code name “Miller,” drove a truck bomb into an SL army camp set up in the precincts of a school at Nelliyady in the Jaffna Peninsula during the Army’s Vadamarachchi Operation.[5] C4. C2 and C3 pinpoint a minor error of  comparative fact. However, what is missed out by Sheridan is more vital. I devote a separate segment (D) for this aspect of LTTE operations and the misplaced worldwide denigration of their suicide attacks.

D. The LTTE’s enshrinement of sacrificial devotion to cause, as I have contended in numerous essays (Roberts, 2005a, b, 2006, 2007, 2010a, 2010c), commenced with an affirmation that each activist would commit suicide rather than be captured alive with the likelihood that the captive would then disclose vital information to the enemy under torture. The kuppi or cyanide vial carried by most fighters/activists was seen as “a good friend” (Schalk 1997: 74-75, 76). It was a defensive ploy adopted by Prabhakaran himself – as he explained to a BBC team in 1991 – from the very outset in the late 1970s or early 1980s (BBC 1991). The first official suicide hero was Selvam Pakin, who bit his capsule on 18 May 1984. In my amendment, however, Seelan, aka Charles Anthony, then second-in-command of the LTTE, was the first to adhere to this motto: injured and unable to run when discovered by a SL Army patrol at Meesalai on 15 July 1983, he ordered a junior compatriot to shoot him (Roberts 2010a: 181). In the LTTE perception, therefore, suicidal acts of this kind were tar-kotai, “a gift of self” and a rendering of uyirayutam or deploying life as weapon (Roberts, “Self-Annihilation,” in 2010a: 185).

D2. The LTTE, therefore, adopted defensive suicide as their badge of honour from early on, a display of arppaNippu (gift or dedication to a deity) that also attracted the admiration of their Tamil people[6] and gave the LTTE an edge over all the other militant associations in the competition for recruits in the post-83 period.

D3. The LTTE did not adopt suicide attacks in its offensive armoury till 1987. This step was a logical one: explosive-laden suicidal operatives are a low-cost precision weapon. They are, typically, weapons of the weak or tools deployed by a weaker force in warring contexts: within the history of warfare, the suicide-bomber-is-to-drone as machete-is-to-machine-gun. The LTTE, certainly, as Sheridan notes, was innovative in this regard. I believe the suicide vests, belts, brassieres et cetera which they developed, were skilled ‘engineering’ masterpieces. More to the point, they have not only been the only insurgency to develop a naval arm, but the only navy to use fast attack craft or speedboats as suicide bombs on such an extensive scale.[7] In association with their swarm tactics at sea, the Sea Tigers proved to be a deadly asset for the LTTE from 1990 till the very end. As the graphic map delineates, during the desperate LTTE defence of its remaining territory of some 1-2 sq. kilometres in mid-May 2009, one action involved a bomb-laden speedboat charging the water-line and skip-bouncing across the beach to hit a newly-established SL Army bunker (see detail in map).K 125- The final squeeze map of Thamilīlam and its death throes, 15 May 2009

D4. The focus on LTTE suicide attacks – complemented at times by attention to child recruitment – has been a typical tool in criticism of the LTTE from conservative quarters in the West. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was massaging this inclination during his chat with Sheridan. Typical of the accusative attitudes has been the work of the American political scientist, Robert Pape, who hit the headlines on this topic circa 2003 (Pape 2003, 2005). Pape adhered to a form of instrumental rationality that is so dominant in US academia. His survey of the LTTE in this realm concentrated solely on suicide attacks and was oblivious to their use of suicide as defensive tool on the one hand and, on the other hand, as protest tool through fasts-unto-death in 1987 and 1989 (Roberts, “Blunders in Tigerland,” 2007b).[8] Such yawning gaps in coverage are an injustice to both the LTTE and to scholarship.

D5. It is not suicide attacks qua suicidal action, but those occasions of suicide attack that went beyond legitimate military targets and enveloped a mass of civilians in flame or devastation that critics should focus on. In the case of the LTTE there is a vast array of such carnage wrought on civilian elements in Sri Lankan society through bomb placements, commando raids in Colombo as well as gun ‘n machete killing raids in border areas. The inordinate emphasis on suicide bombers in the Western world today calls for self-reflective evaluations of the Western world’s historical evolution and ideological baggage by those attentive to its deep processes and aware of the enormous sacrifices and suicidal swarm attacks launched as a matter of course during the trench warfare of World War One.

E. Sheridan’s excursion among elevated political circles in Sri Lanka yielded two nuggets of information on the methodologies, so to speak, of the war. When he asked KP about the inspiration behind the use of suicide bombers, the latter’s response took one to the heart of LTTE thinking. KP:  “It was Prabhakaran’s own idea…. We used it first in the 1980s. Actually, I remember early in the 80s some people sat with us and we talked of the Japanese in World War II and the kamikaze bombers….”  The striking impact of kamikaze attacks by Japanese airmen in the Pacific theatre of war during World War Two is widely known (albeit also overestimated).[9] Less well known is the fact that the Japanese also deployed kamikaze in midget-submarines or manned torpedoes on some occasions. Significantly, the LTTE were alive to this aspect and had begun experimenting with mini-submersibles themselves.[10] E2. The Japanese went further. In the large island of Saipan in June 1944 they encouraged and coerced the Japanese civilian settler population to commit mass suicide by jumping off the cliff as the American Army advanced and squeezed them into a small pocket of territory.[11] In 1945 in Okinawa they distributed grenades among the civilians and promoted suicidal self-annihilation.

suicide at Marpi PoinySuicides at Marpi Point, or “Banshee Cliff,” at Saipan

E3. The LTTE had this inclination themselves. They encouraged their citizenry – perhaps some 340,000 or so all told — to withdraw eastwards in 2008/09 as the SL Army advanced — mostly from the west. The resulting series of multiple displacement seems to have been willingly followed at the start (Reddy 2009), but from January 2009, as conscription and other pressures got more severe, some elements of the Tamil citizenry began to rebel by seeking escape (in the face of Tiger threats and actual executions or shooting). In paraphrase the LTTE attitude was as stark as simple: “we have suffered on your behalf; so you must suffer alongside.” Thus Rasamalar, a lady aged 48, remarked that “the organization said we were going to die anyway if we crossed to the army-controlled area and told us to die with them” (de Silva-Ranasinghe 2010b: 4). Veerasingham Anandasangaree, a veteran Tamil politician, summed up their situation quite pithily: “more than a hundred thousand people … [have] been mercilessly driven like cattle into Kilinochchi by the LTTE from the areas under their control in the neighbouring districts of Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitheevu. … they are [now] squeezed into small villages already overcrowded with the locally displaced persons from the Kilinochchi district itself. The LTTE holds these people to ransom for no fault of theirs, but only for the sole purpose of using them as human shield for their own protection” (quoted in de Silva-Ranasinghe 2010b: 3).

89a- Situ Map--2009-03-22 00.59.52

 Graphic Map of war zone and SL Army lines of advance – Daily Mirror, 20 March 2009

90--Tent City-daru 27

Tent City in the Last Redoubt, circa Feb-March 2009—from Ban Ki-Moon’s Panel

91b--16_04_09_pokkanai Congestion
at Pokkanai on main road in Last Redoubt, 16 April 2009 – Tamilnet

H 103a--civil_mov_mulli_04 H 103b-civil_mov_mulli_05 moving southPics from Tamilnet – early May 2009

H 106b 01_05_09_vanni_01 Congested life – note red tiled houses in background , 1 May 2009 – Tamilnet

E4. Thus, in early 2009, aware as I was of the total dedication to cause among the LTTE hierarchy and many of its fighting personnel, I was deeply afraid. I thought the LTTE would encourage and enforce a Saipan or Jonestown. I wrote an interrelated series of essays in http://www.transcurrents (Roberts 2009c) raising the prospect of mass political suicide to match the act of self-immolation in protest outside UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 by Murugathāsan Varnakulasingham, a young Tamil from London. E5. Thankfully I was in error. Unlike the Japanese at Saipan and Okinawa most of the Tamil citizens opted to live. As Keerawella puts it, they began to “desert” the LTTE (2013: 9). In January 2009 roughly 5000 people are estimated to have got away on foot or by boat from their corralled hostage/sandbag/blackmail tool situation to SL government territory– usually under cover of darkness. During February 36,378 escaped, while in March 57,412 successfully moved to government territory.[12] On the flip side, however, as many as 246,000 people (inclusive of LTTE fighters) remained within what I call their “Last Redoubt” in mid-April 2009 – living, as before, in heavily congested and awful conditions.

102b-alternative2013-01-30 19.34.38 ++ 102b -- april 2009 exodus Exodus as people desert LTTE –pro-govt sources

When the SL army penetrated the Last Redoubt on 19/20th April, however, some 103-126,000 people streamed and struggled across to safer terrain.[13] But even then another 90,000 to 100,000 thousand remained loyal to the LTTE and still believed that international intervention would save their bacon. Those who had been located in the north of the Last Redoubt moved south (see illustrations below taken from TamilNet) to the little ‘stump’ of land that stood for what was left of the state of Thamilīlam. Citizen Silva estimates that in early May  the number of people, inclusive of LTTE personnel, located in this remnant Thamilīlam amounted to 135,00-146,000 – an appraisal which should rectify the Tamilnet claim of 165,000 people (email note, clarified also in IDAG 2013). In brief, the rump LTTE state still had considerable support and many true believers among the citizenry.

S-OB - 17--5 Yatawara 4 S-OB - 17--5 Yatawara 5 Pics by Yatawara Sunday Observer, 17 May 2009

F. In his clarification to Sheridan about the use of suicide attacks KP went further:  “… we talked of the Japanese in World War II and the kamikaze bombers. Somehow that came from Prabhakaran’s mind. Also, in Tamil Nadu there was the tradition that people sometimes set themselves on fire (in protest).” In other words, KP dwelt, albeit briefly, on the force of those cultural traditions in Tamil society in India which sustain stone epitaphs (nadukal) for (a) those who for commit honour suicide or protest suicide and (b) for hero-figures who died in defence of community – stones which can become shrines that embody fierce local deities who respond to propitiation from devotees/supplicants.[14] F2. This has been my pitch since the early 2000s as conveyed in a series of articles (see bibliography). Without direct access to Tamil through facility in the language, my anthropological instincts were aroused by incidents of sympathetic suicide in grief in Tamilnadu when Indira Gandhi was killed in 1984 and later when MGR was near death from a heart attack (Roberts 1996). Since then, guided by information in works by Narayan Swamy, Peter Schalk, Christiani Natali and Dagmar Helmann-Rajanayagam, I have been elaborating upon the force of Tamil history and culture for some time: with material from such specialists as David Shulman, Mazakazu Tanaka, Rohan Bastin and Diane Mines giving me access to their socio-cultural world. Thus, for me, this note from KP is manna from heaven – confirmation from the central core of LTTE thought processes.

G. Again, in Sheridan’s report there is the confirmation of a factor bearing heavily upon the final outcome of Eelam War IV, a factor that most people suspected, a confirmation coming from no less a person than the man overseeing the military exercise, Gotābhaya  Rajapaksa. “Between 2006 and 2008 we destroyed 12 of these floating armouries…. The Americans were very, very helpful. Most of the locations of these ships were given to us by the Americans …American satellite technology located the ships and enabled the Sri Lankans to hit them.” See the illustrations below for one exercise in September 2007 that destroyed three rouge ships.

69a--MAP-naval excursions-ept 2007

68-Seishin sunk 10 Sept 2007Seishin sunk 10 Sept 2007 69b-MATSUSHIMA destroyed 7 oct 2007Matsushima sunk 10 October 2007

G2. Inside information[15] indicates that American cooperation was enabled by the general circumstances associated with the “war on terror” after 9/11; but a specific incident was also of critical import. A hardline Al Qaida “terrorist” was ferreted out in Sri Lanka at some point in the mid-2000s. Sri Lankan cooperation in arresting this man and allowing USA to create an US passport so that he could be flown out to their cells somewhere was secured at a price: the quid pro quo was access to USA’s satellite information. G3. However there is perhaps some overstatement by Gotabhaya in marking the significance of this factor. Some caveats are called for. Luck had a hand. When the Maldivian government sequestered an LTTE trawler named “Sri Krishna” in 2006 its crew and equipment gave the SL Navy access to the modus operandi of LTTE transhipments as well as GPS coordinates (Perera 2007; also Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009). G4. The Indian Ocean is a large space. The sea lanes are thick with traffic. There is room to contend that the innovative operational and tactical knowledge of the SLN commanders was of consequence in nailing down the pattern of dispersion and movement of the Tiger warehouse ships as well as their assembly points. As with the army, the presence of experienced officers in command positions was central to the considerable role of the SL Navy in handicapping the LTTE war effort.

H1. Standing in 2013 perhaps the most significant aspect of the Sheridan interviews was the theme of “reconciliation” emphasised by both KP and Gotābhaya . However, Rajapaksa’s interpretation/spin calls for some caveats. To quote the Defence Secretary: “[Reconciliation] is not an easy task, especially for the people of the north. More than 55 per cent of Tamils live outside the north and the east and have no issues of reconciliation. They mingle with other communities all the time.H2. Here Gotābhaya  was taking advantage of Sheridan’s unfamiliarity with the local context to massage the picture in demographic terms. He ignores what has been standard sociological practice for Sri Lanka, namely the differentiation of the Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka into two categories, a practice enshrined in the census as “Sri Lanka Tamils” and “Indian Tamils.” The Sri Lanka Tamils are widely regarded to have their roots in peoples who settled down in the island from the 13th century at the very least; whereas the Indian Tamils refer to the plantation labourers, port workers, other menials and traders who migrated to the island in the British period in order to service the plantations in the Central Highlands or to secure employment or set up enterprises in the growing urban metropolis of Colombo. The Indian Tamil plantation workers have always been at the bottom of the economic and status hierarchies in Sri Lanka, though a few families have climbed up and become wealthy landowners or traders during the 20th century; and the Indian Chettiyar and other merchant families within this category have been among the wealthiest people in the land. In 1921 the “Indian Tamils” even outnumbered the SL Tamils making up 13.4% of the total population in Ceylon as against 11.5% for the latter. But by 1971 their proportion was down to 9.3% as against 11.2 per cent for the SL Tamils because of political processes of ‘induced’ return. Now, in 2012 they have dwindled to 843,323 persons or 4.2 per cent of the total population.[16]

H3. The Tamil dialect spoken by most Indian Tamils is said to immediately distinguish them from that of the SL Tamils who consider their own speech-form to be more refined. As vitally, caste and status considerations have tended to separate the Indian Tamils from the SL Tamils; so that the demeaning attitudes of the latter sometimes alienated Indian Tamil people. Again, the spatial location of Indian Tamils in the highlands and the south west accentuated this difference and their politics. For the most part, therefore, the demand for “Eelam” seems to have had limited mileage in Indian Tamil circles, though I suspect that there was admiration for Pirapāharan and the LTTE because of the capacities of sacrifice displayed and the success they achieved.

H4. However, this set of caveats demands its own caveat. Some Indian Tamils resided in the north and east; and their numbers burgeoned because of the nationalization of plantations in the 1970s. Thus, in 1981 the census recorded 43,779 “Indian Tamils’ in the Districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya as differentiated from 166,861 “SL Tamils’ in the same areas. Therefore, they constituted as much as 26.2% of the population in these regions, with many of them working as agricultural labourers or tenant farmers. The outbreak of war in the 1980s eventually resulted in many of them joining, or being conscripted into, the LTTE.[17] Logically, their Tamilness would have been sharpened in the course of the war.

H5. A refined sociological study is now required to indicate whether this specific cluster has become “Sri Lankan Tamil” (just as a sprinkling of “Indian Tamils” in Colombo and elsewhere in the south have become “Sinhalese” via marriage and assimilation). The 2012 census revealed the following figures for Indian Tamils in the four districts Mannar, Kilinochchi,[18] Mullaitivu and Vavuniya which embraced the same area in 1981: 5,550. Thus the figure of 43,779 in 1981 has reduced dramatically. Even if one allows for deaths in battle as Tiger recruits or migration to Tamilnadu[19] in the period 1983-2006, the probability is that many of these individuals/families presented themselves as “SL Tamil” when the Tamil-speaking census enumerators came round in 2012, or that the enumerators themselves took this decision.

H5. Attending to this central distinction within the Tamil population, therefore, the census of 2012 reveals that out of the 2,270,924  Sri Lanka Tamil people in the island, 673,648 lived outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces, adding up to 29.7 per cent of their total population. If one added the 824,228 persons registered as “Indian Tamil” who were enumerated outside the two provinces,[20] and created the entity “Tamil” as Gotābhaya Rajapaksa did, the proportion becomes larger.

H6. Though the demographic figures call for refined adjustment in this manner, Gotābhaya Rajapaksa’s contention still carries weight. A considerable proportion of the Sri Lanka Tamil people have lived in the southern regions for a long time and they have continued to migrate in that direction in the course of self-advancement. Their presence in the city of Colombo and what is easily the richest region in Sri Lanka in per capita terms, namely, Colombo District, underlines Gotābhaya’s message – though only up to a point that is subject to further caveats below.

H7. Understanding Sri Lanka’s political economy and growth history in spatial terms is central to this argument. From the early 19th century Colombo became the island’s transport and administrative hub as well as controlling domain (Roberts 1989). Internal migration was Colombo-centric. The indigenous political and economic elites invariably had their residences and operational offices within its environs, though some of them had one foot in the metropolis and another in some regional locality (like the Rajapaksa family yesterday and today).

H8. Framed thus, it is of political significance that, way back in 1921 for instance, the percentage of Burghers[21] in the city of Colombo as then constituted was 6.0 per cent, while the percentage of “SL Tamils” was 5.0 per cent in comparison with the “Sinhalese” who constituted 46.8 per cent.[22] While the British elements in the island (administrators, agency houses and plantation owners) commanded the reigns of economic power, the indigenous component of professional classes in the early 20th century had a significant proportion of Burghers and Tamils.

H9. In striking contrast, and as indicator of shifting demographic trends in more recent decades, the proportion of Sinhalese in the metropolis as it is defined today is only 24 per cent, with the Muslim population now making up 40% and the two Tamil communities together constituting 33% (the latter figure having grown from 24.5% in 1971).[23] Such a narrow focus is partially misleading however. There is such a phenomenon as the “greater Colombo metropolitan arena” where the Sinhalese are in a majority. Indeed, such fringe areas as Maharagama and Kolonnawa seem to be the regions spawning some of the most rabid Sinhala extremist elements today (such as BBS, Sinhala Rāvaya and JVP and Hela Urumaya).

H10. Ethnic demographic distribution cannot be surveyed without fine-tuned attention to economic and political power. While political power is clearly commanded by parliamentarians chosen by Sinhala constituencies, the  Sri Lanka Tamils continue to have a substantial stake among the professional classes of lawyers, doctors, accountants and mercantile functionaries located in Colombo; and both Indian Tamil and SL Tamil businessmen are among the richest entrepreneurs in the island. Businesses located in the Pettah were a controlling hub in the trade with India from the 19th century; and Chettiyar and other Indian Tamil businesses continue to dominate this lucrative arena today – with the gold and jewellery houses in Sea Street serving as one of the vital aspects of this financial power.

H11. It is by complicating Gothabaya’s message in this manner that one can gain a fuller appreciation of the arguments that emphasise demographic distribution. Recall that he utilised the population figures to claim that “[Tamil people] mingle with other communities all the time.” This suggestion has recently been reiterated by KP as well: “Tamils live in other parts of the country with the Sinhalese, so why is it [hatred of the Sinhala] only an issue in Jaffna?”

H12. Both Gotābhaya and KP, therefore, argue that comingling in the same space in the southern areas of Lanka are indications that the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim peoples get on reasonably well with each other. While such a message is pertinent as a corrective to those foreigners who have been misled into believing that these communities are at each other’s throats most of the time, there is a misleading simplification attached to this line of emphasis. Does a demographic mosaic and evidence of strands of cross-fertilisation necessarily mean amity and fellowship? Recall that way back in the mid-twentieth century the scholar HS Furnivall spoke of Burma and parts of South East Asia as constituting a “plural society.”[24] In this reading the plurality was confined to the market place. There was no in-depth integration of the different ethnic groups in a socio-political and/or communitarian sense.

H13. Thus we must use Furnivall’s contention as well as more refined studies to test the waters of the Gotābhaya argument in Sri Lanka. Yes, the deities of the Indian Saivite and Vaishnava world have entered Sri Lanka over the centuries and been incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon under the Buddha’s varama (authority).[25] Hindu, Catholic and Buddhist processions vend their ways across urban streets without hindrance. Yes, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians co-mingle at powerful deity shrines (both Hindu and Catholic) in propitiation of these deities.[26] But even when they visit Kataragama and Munnesvaram at the same moment for acts of propitiation, or the fulfilment of vows made earlier, are respective Buddhist and Hindu devotees working within the same body of thought and sentiment? My speculative answer to the latter question is “no, that is too simple an equation. There is differential similarity. There is both overlap and fundamental difference.” Again, while there may be some social exchanges across ethnic lines at office, club and even drawing rooms in certain class circles in Colombo, do we have adequate sociological data on the extent/depth in the patterns of cross-ethnic visitation to each other’s residences? The seeming amity witnessed today has also to be attentive to (a) the memories of older Tamil residents who lived through the July 1983 pogrom in the south and are aware of the previous mini-pogroms of 1958 and 1977; and (b) the fact that Muslim and Tamil householders in Sinhala-majority localities are fully alive to the extremist political agendas that are being voiced today by such forces as the BBS, Sīhala Rāvaya and Jāthika Hela Urumaya.

H14. Thus, in brief, “plurality” is invariably a complex phenomenon. Simplified glosses can be misleading.


Axell, Albert and Hideaki Kase 2002 Kamikaze. Japan’s Suicide Gods, London: Longman.

Bass, Daniel 2001 Landscapes of Malaiyaha Identity, Colombo: Marga.

Bastin, Rohan 2003 The Domain of Constant Excess. Plural Worship at the Munnesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka, New York: Berghahn Books.

Bavinck, Ben 2010 “Shelling suffering of the Tamil People, 1990-91,” in http://thuppahi.

BBC 1991 “Suicide Killers,” Documentary series.

Chalk, Peter 1999. “LTTE’s International Organization and Operations–A Preliminary Analysis.” Commentary. A Canadian Security Intelligence Service Publicationon internet Winter 1999 and as No.  77 on 17 March 2000.

Chandradasa, Malaka n. d. “Learning from our enemies: Sri Lankan naval special warfare against sea Tigers,”

Citizen Silva 2013 see IDAG.

Defence Ministry 2009Army annihilates terror pocket in Anandapuram; LTTE loses its final stronghold in Puthukkudiyiruppu,”

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009a “Political and Security Implications of Sri Lanka’s Armed Conflict,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Feb.  2009, Vol. 35/1, pp. 20, 22-24.

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[1] Only a small segment of the Australian populace read newspapers. The Australian itself had a readership of 412,000 in the month of June 2012. Of this number it is, in conjecture, probable that only o one-fourth bothered to read the item on Sri Lanka.

[2] This article (1978) was drafted in Germany in 1976. Also see Roberts, “Nationalisms Today and Yesterday,”1998.

[3] Indeed, Malathi, the first female māvīrar, was a from a Catholic family within the Karaiyar caste (Pirapāharan’s caste) This caste is provided a significant proportion of the Tiger leadership and fighting cadre according to some Tamil informants.

[4] Note Sarvananthan 2007 “In Pursuit of a Mythical State of Tamil Eelam: A Rejoinder to Kristian Stokke,” Third World Quarterly 28/6: 1185-1195.

[5] Miller was the son of a bank clerk and educated at Hartley College, Point Pedro.

[6] See Roberts 2006a: 75 for instance.

[7] See Chandradasa n. d.; De Silva-Ranasinghe 2009f and 2009g; and Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009.

[8] A leading Tiger, Thileepan fasted unto death in September 1987 and a mother of ten, Annai Pupathi, did so in the Batticaloa area in April 1989 – their highly-publicized acts being directed against the Indian occupation of the north and east.

[9] See Ohnuki-Tierney 2002; Axell & Kase 2002 and Inoguchi et all 1958. The official Japanese phrase for the kamikaze was actually “tokkotai special operations.

[10] Tiger frogmen also used limpet mines to sink two naval gunboats in Trincomalee harbour on 19 April 1995 while peace talks were still in progress – in effect a mini Pearl Harbour in its  duplicitous character.

[11] “At the end of June, Hirohito sent out an imperial order encouraging the civilians of Saipan to commit suicide. The order authorized the commander of Saipan to promise civilians who died there an equal spiritual status in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat. General Hideki Tōjō intercepted the order on 30 June 1944 and delayed its sending, but it went out anyway the next day. By the time the marines advanced on the north tip of the island, from 8–12 July 1944, most of the damage had been done. 1,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle to take the offered privileged place in the afterlife, some jumping from “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff” (

[12] Figures from UNOCHA – see IDAG 2013: section 3.

[13] For this process in late April and then in mid-May, see Reddy 2009a; Sriyananda 2009; Vidura 2009;  Yatawara 2009 and especially DBS Jeyaraj, 2009c “Wretched of the Earth break Free of Bondage,” Daily Mirror, 25 April 2009,  The most detailed review is in IDAG 2013.

[14] See Rajam 2000;  Settar  &   Sontheimer  1982; Mines 2005 and Roberts 2006a & 2014.

[15] I am not at liberty to name the source. I hve not been able to ascertain in which year this event occurred.

[16] This further reduction may be partly due to (a) assimilation or redefinition of self as Sinhalese or Sri Lanka Tamil in certain localities or (b) emigration to India during the war period by Indian Tamils who lived in the north earlier. While 4.2% in Sri Lanka the “Indian Tamils” are 53.2% of Nuwara Eliya District in the centre of the island.

[17] The guesthouse keeper at the guest house I stayed in at Kilinochchi on 25-27 November 2004 was an Indian Tamil from the Kandy area. Hiss one has died in battle and he had a little household shrine in the son’s memory. He also told reporter Joe Ariyaratnam that he would readily join the LTTE and fight if he was required to do so.

[18] Kilinochchi District was carved out in 1983.

[19] Some unverified estimates suggest that as many as 250,000 people shifted to Tamilnadu in the period 1988 to 2005 in order to escape the furnace of war in the period 1990-2001.

[20] 118,260 persons were identified as “Indian Tamil” in the districts encompassed by these two provinces.

[21] Within Sri Lanka the Burghers then added up to only 0.7 percent of the population. But they were the blue-eyed boys of the British and fulfilled key administrative and professional roles in the colonial order.

[22] See Table 17 in Roberts et al, People Inbetween, p. 198.

[23] See Pamunuwa 2012. “The Sinhala population in the city now stands at 79,468, while Tamil and Muslim populations stand at 106,325 and 126,345 respectively.”

[24] “Defined by J S Furnivall as a medley of peoplesEuropean, Chinese, Indian and native, who do mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the marketplace in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, within the same political unit” (

[25] See Obeyesekere 1964 and Holt 2004.

[26] Bastin 2003; Obeysekere1977 & 1978 and Pfaffenberger 1979.


Filed under australian media, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, nationalism, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, world events & processes, zealotry

8 responses to “Sri Lanka’s Complex Background: Correcting & Amplifying Sheridan and Gotābhaya

  1. padraigcolman

    Excellent, Michael. Unfortunately, not may people are interested in facts and don’t want to accept complexity.

  2. chandre Dharmawardana

    Roberts says:
    the Republic of India will look askance at a neighbour, the state of Eelam, which could stimulate and then materially sustain a campaign for separate statehood for Tamilnadu

    As also remarked by some commentators in an article that appeared in a CT publication, the Thesavalami law that existed in the South-Indian Malabar region and still exist in the North of Sri Lanka, asserts (to simplify matters a bit) that even if you OWN A PIECE OF LAND, you cannot sell it or dispose of it without the consent of your neighbours.

    In the same sense, Eelam cannot be a possibility without the agreement of the neighbour in the North (viz., India), the neighbor in the south, i.e., the central government in the South. In the south east we have the Eastern province. These tamils have been regarded as “low-caste” by the Jaffna tamils, and there has been politcal disagreement between them, even though Jaffna wants to merge (or submerge) the East into itself.

    So, the difficulty can be thought of as being enshrined in the Thesavalmi law well understood within traditional Jaffna society. However, with changing geopolitcs, Hillaory Clinton has gone to Tamil Nadu and strengthened the centrifugal tendencies in India itself. Tamil Nadu will support Eelam, and look forward to confederating with the Jaffna-based Eelam into itself, just as the Christian church of Jaffna has hitched itself to the South Indian Diocese. Such ideas have appeared in print and proposed by various Tamil nationalist writers. Such writings fuel the fear of Southern nationalists who in turn take what they believe to be counter-actions to “save the nation”. In fact, this happened even during the Banda-Chelva pact in 1957, when the Tamil Nationalist ITAK writings in Jaffna stated that the B-C pact was merely a first step to consolidating power for the Arasu objective, thus igniting opposition to the BC pact in the south.

    • Muralidran Somasunderam.

      You are not accepting that the Sinhalese are racist and act based on myths, not facts based on history. Therefore the problem in Sri Lanka will never end because of this, as external forces will use this weakness among the Sinhalese people for their advantage, not the advantage of Sri Lanka or the Singhalese people, even if they think otherwise.

      • Muralidran Somasunderam.

        Sinhalese people feel that if they give anything to Tamils or other minority groups that they will loose the whole island. Therefore based on this concept or theory they believe the whole country is only for the Sinhalese and no other group. This therefore leaves very little or no room for anything in regard to any minority group apart from the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. This has been true historically and this mentality is even more today.

    • Muralidran Somasunderam.

      What are you talking about caste, because will the Sinhalese majority vote a lower caste person to lead them. Please think twice before stating anything in writing.

  3. Pingback: Sri Lanka’s Complex Background: Correcting & Amplifying Sheridan And Gotābhaya | Colombo Telegraph

  4. Mithra

    Excellent! this should be sent to Greg Sheridan with a referral from a GP for him to se a consultant to have his Myopia cured.

  5. Lam Seneviratne

    A clear and incisive analysis of the events, analyses and projections of the views expressed to give us a clear understanding of the current status. He has stayed factual and there is no trace of bias .Excellent..
    Lam Seneviratne

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