February 4th 1968. The Kenyan government had just passed a law denying Asian Kenyans the right to work in their country. Great boats set sail, trains over-packed and heaving, leather beaten shoes left the dry sands of Nairobi as Indian and Pakistani Kenyans set off on a musky uncertain future. They like many burdened eyes across the world looked to Britain whose gateway had creaked open, awaiting was the promise of a hammer and a shilling. On the same day 20 years previous on the tip of the Indian subcontinent, drums could be heard, celebration was in the air. Across the Gulf of Mannar, The British Empire had relinquished its jewel, February 4th 1948, Ceylon had won independence. The pearl of the Indian ocean had gained nationhood, a nation of many peoples, many religions, many differences bound together under one mandate; Sri Lanka.
Today is February 3rd 2008. Tomorrow my mother country celebrates its 60th year as a nation under one name and sovereign. It also mourns it’s 25th year of civil conflict and faces the possibility of being a nation held together in name only. The word ceasefire ceased to be relevant this new year, the words amicable compromise are hardly uttered anymore. The 2008 independence celebrations may be the last time we celebrate in a year that promises more bloodshed and violence the likes of which threaten to finally bring our countries economic viability to it’s knees.
My father came to England during the first stream of Asian immigrants, much like the Kenyan Asian workers, as a 17 year old boy in the 1960’s. He hoped to get lucky, score an idea that he heard about in those paradise stories that he heard from his friends back home. That idea of ‘A Living’. A working, viable living, where money was a means to mark a place in the world, for a grounding and a foundation for a family. When my father left his country was called Ceylon and it was a country that was undoubtedly his. He was Sinhalese and Ceylon was very Sinhala.
The civil conflict in Ceylon emerged during the wake of independence. The celebrations were over and the country stepped boldly into the new light as a new nation. At least that was the idea. There are some who say that Ceylon even under the British had been two nations and was never a part of a whole. Much of this comes from the divisions between the ethnic make up of the people and it is this notion that has entwined itself into the bitter struggle for the Tamil people of the north and eastern part of Sri Lanka who lay claim to Tamil Eelam, an area constituting the north and eastern part of the area. The Tamil people are mainly Hindu and Roman Catholic while the majority Sinhala population were devout Buddhist and spoke Sinhala.
It seems colonialism is the root from which many of the prevailing worldwide conflicts stem from, as it is with this one. After the British won control of the island in 1815, they started to bring Tamil laborers from Southern India to work in tea, coffee and coconut plantations. After independence was granted however these plantation workers were disenfranchised as a majority Sinhala parliament gained control. Furthermore Soloman Bandaranaike who was elected on a wave of nationalism went on to implement measures that bolstered Sinhalese and Buddhist interests. Sinhala was made the sole official language and Buddhism was placed at the centre of the countries national religion. In 1958 more than 100 Tamils were killed in wide spread violence after parliamentarians had protested against the new laws and when Soloman’s wife Srimavo took over the mantle she extended the nationalization programme further. In 1972 Ceylon became ‘Sri Lanka’ a name that has a context in Sinhala history and folklore. The Tamil minority became restless and the disillusionment gave way to resentment; how could a Tamil mother send her son to a school where he didn’t speak the language that was being taught and was overlooked in higher education and thus in the workplace. The government in response said that it had merely sought to redress the imbalance where under British rule the Tamil’s were given a disproportionate amount of top jobs and were felt to be favored by the British over the Sinhala.
The Liberation Tigers Of Tamil Eelam or LTTE were formed in 1976 as the anti-Tamil sentiment intensified in the northern part of Sri Lanka. The group was led by a military leader named Prabhakaran and they used violence for the means in pursuing a separate Tamil state which was by now a real demand that groups like the LTTE would stop at nothing to achieve. As the fires of unrest amongst the distinctive Tamil population began to gather, the flames were something the government could no longer dismiss and marginalize. Anti-Tamil sentiment was rife and the country was on the brink of full scale war when in 1981 a group of Sinhala policemen were accused of burning down the Tamil Public Library in the northern city of Jaffna. Suddenly it became tit for tat. The rule of an eye for an eye has been the mainstay to this day and it began in 1983 when in response to the burning of the library 13 soldiers were ambushed and killed by LTTE rebels which inevitably led to anti-Tamil riots where estimated thousands of Tamils were killed. Some Sri Lankans felt that the large population of Tamils concentrated in southern India were lending considerable support to the LTTE. As the situation deteriorated the then Prime Minister Jayawardene invited talks with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and as negotiations were brokered with India as a mediator the government made a number of concessions to the Tamils and the official status of the Tamil language together with some devolution of power stayed the bloody hand of civil strife for a time.
I was born in Westminister, London in 1984 the son of a Sinhala Sri Lankan immigrant. I was raised among a tight knit Sinhala community based in North West London where Buddhism and mutual respect was what kept what I imagined a group of first generation settlers together in those first tentative years on foreign soil. Now these uncles and aunties had families and children like me, the second generation, and were still close and firmly held together by a sense of mutual belonging. The first memory I have of a sense of conflict in the country my parents talked about was when in 1993 my father came home to my mother shouting from the living room from in front of the television: ‘They killed Premedasa!’ she called. Long days in front of the Six O’Clock News ensued. President Premedasa had been killed by a suicide bomber, it had been more violent backlash. After Indian-Sri Lankan relations had soured after India disapproved of the humanitarian violations on both sides, Premedasa had sent the Indians and their troops home. Gandhi himself had fallen at the hands of an LTTE suicide attack in 1991 and the group had now been tagged a terrorist organization commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.
It was another case of coming so close but failing due to intermittent ignorance and short sightedness on both sides of the barbed wire fence. On the ground, brutality of the suicide bombings were countered by the unrelenting surges by the army into the northern provinces. Politically however any concessions to the Tamils gained mass disapproval by the Sinhala majority. This was yet another trend in the struggle that would continue until early in the next century. By 2002 the conflict had amassed thousands of deaths and millions of displaced families. It appeared that without any mediations, hope of peace was false and fading. Enter Norway; another mediator and hope sprung again in the paddy fields of a blood soaked island. A ceasefire was signed, de-commissioning of weapons began and the road to Jaffna was re-opened. The rebels dropped it’s demand for a separate state and autonomy and the acknowledgment of a right to exist was something. And it would do, for now. Passenger flights to the north took to the air and people around the world began to remember that the Pearl in the Indian Ocean although now slightly cloudy and had less of the innocent splendor it once charmed, had lost none of its beauty and wonder. Tourism boomed. The economy showed signs of recovery, yes, everything it seemed after nearly 20 years of civil war, was getting better in 2002.
Yet I write now on February 3rd 2008 a day before the 60th Sri Lankan Independence and things seem more dire than they ever were. Last month the government and the rebels had officially pulled out of the 2002 peace accords although a steep incline of violence during the last 2 years meant that this ‘official’ pull out was a formality after the fact. There are whispers of 2008 being the year war ravages this nation. I, myself, am surprised that the nation still stands to be ravaged or that there is anything to ravage at all. The few years of peace and prosperity after 2002 gave way and again it seems, we were so close yet so far. But what consistently brings this writer to a utter dismay was not the futility of the 2002 peace agreement but it was an event on Boxing Day 2004 after which I stood with many a political commentator at the time with real hope that this one thing, if anything, would bring the country together; it was the Tsunami. 30, 000 Sri Lankans were killed that day when massive tidal waves ripped through the coastal communities of the island, not just Tamils, not just Sinhala, nor Buddhist or Hindu, Sri Lankan’s lost their lives and loved ones that day. I held the firm belief that looking at the devastation caused, perhaps those that make the decisions in Colombo and Jaffna would have gained a new perspective. That maybe it would take this, enormous, heartbreaking tragedy for Tamil and Sinhala men and women alike to set aside their differences and work together rebuilding their one nation. Never were we so close, not in ’85, not even in 2002 with the Norwegians did we stand on the very threshold of facing a common disaster and thrust forward to face it together. This was the opportunity needed, I felt, to show the world we could do this. In London, England, Sri Lanka suddenly became a charity case; send your clothes, send your money send your food. We became one of those stories. Aid was send from many nations around the world to help Sri Lanka rebuild and fight through. Let us show them, I felt. Let us share the burden.
$3 Billion was sent to Sri Lanka in the coming months. And in July 2005 what did Sri Lanka do? We rowed, we quarreled and wouldn’t let go. $3 Billion was sent to us and we couldn’t share $3 Billion. We took up the arms of ignorance and distrust and aimed it squarely at our feet. And then again, inevitably, we aimed it at each other. In August 2005 the Sri Lankan foreign minister was killed in a suicide bomb which led to renewed fighting in the northeast. Tit for tat, an eye for an eye once again. For the past 25 years over and over we reached the point where opportunity was brokered, sought and fought for and then on one morning in December opportunity was handed to us by an act of a merciless God, and even then we failed and we fell into the same old design. The same old ways that bring us to February 3rd 2008 on the eve of the celebration where we are reminded of the birth of our great nation. I for one do not see anything worth celebrating, I for one feel let down. For all the pride I have in my father and the generation that swept across continents to build lives worth living, braving new worlds in endeavour, why do I not feel as proud when looking back at the history of the country from which they hailed? Tell me what we, the second generation, should be proud of? What hope have you left us for the future?
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