Sunday, February 17, 2008

The conflict in Sri Lanka is inextricably linked with the demand for secession, deceptively designed to wrench the sympathy of the international community. Last month, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), urged the United Nations to recognize “Tamil sovereignty” and end the conflict in Sri Lanka.

The international community must be told that, beneath a plausible veneer, the demand for a separate state for Tamils of Sri Lanka is rooted in fiction. There never was at any time in Sri Lankan history “a traditional Tamil homeland” in the north and east of Sri Lanka, as claimed by the LTTE.

If historically, the LTTE demand for a separate state is a downright fabrication, what is the case they can make to justify a separate state? The claim of discrimination is made in relation to language, standardization in education, justice, etc., for Tamils.

Standardization or statistical weighting was designed to help disadvantaged students from rural districts irrespective of their race and was never designed to discriminate against Tamils. Such positive discrimination exists in other countries too, to grant relief to the underprivileged.

Thus, rural Tamils along with others, benefited from standardization, which is not what the Tigers would have you believe. Consequently, the urban students, with access to better educational facilities, were disadvantaged through standardization, among whom were Sinhalese and Tamils.

Sinhala and Tamil are official languages today and English is a link language. One cannot fault the administration, which came to office in 1956 with an election pledge to make Sinhala, spoken by nearly 70 percent of the population, the official language. The mistake, one can argue, was not to have the foresight to recognize Tamil as an official language as well. Remember, in 1950, the Indian Constitution declared Hindi the official language of the union and think of the ethnic diversity of India.

If anyone says that Tamils cannot seek justice through courts, it is a downright fabrication. Take the landmark Supreme Court judgment in June 2007 on eviction of Tamil lodgers from Colombo. Many are the examples in which Tamils have vindicated their rights guaranteed under the constitution. Other examples are the case of Ramupillai v. Ministry of Public Administration (1991) and Vinyagamoorthy v. Army Commander (1997).

True, the majority of today’s Sinhala community comprising 74.5 percent, is Buddhist. However, the multiethnic, multireligious tapestry of Sri Lankan society, older than 2,500 years, has been enriched by the threads of racial amity and tolerance. The Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and others share a strong sense of harmony unique to Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, even though the LTTE is attempting to establish a mono-ethnic separate state for about 12 percent of “Sri Lankan Tamils” in the north and east, (“Indian Tamils” comprising 4.6 percent of the population are part of our democratic fabric), more than half of that population now lives in safety and peace among the Sinhalese and other communities in the south.

If Tamils are being discriminated against as alleged, why would they prefer to live among the Sinhalese than under the LTTE?

Last month, an FBI announcement said “No, it’s not al Qaeda or Hezbollah or even Hamas…. The Tamil Tigers are among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world.”

No one knows this claim better than Sri Lankans, Tamils included, which is why the government is continuing military operations against Tigers, to free the people and wrest the land away from this terrorist group. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has consistently said the answer to the conflict will be a negotiated political solution that is fair to all communities. The dilemma is with whom is he going to negotiate? Can it be the LTTE, “the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world,” for the seventh time since 1985?

Sri Lanka is one of the oldest democracies in South Asia, and despite the relentless onslaught of terror unleashed by Tigers, democracy still survives in our island. While the United States pursues new horizons to nurture democracy, it needs to be alert to the anti-democratic forces that stalk vulnerable democracies like Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has no Pledge of Allegiance to its flag. If it had one, it would be no different than that of the United States: “One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The United States needs to afford Sri Lanka the strength to remain “one nation indivisible.”

Bernard Goonetilleke is the ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States.

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