Friday, January 9, 2009

Sri Lankan People Have Made History

By Sanjeewa Karunaratne

As a result of years of struggle by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists, President Johnson drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ensured equal treatment to women, minorities and other under-represented groups. The 60’s in the U.S. was hallmarked with civil rights and feminist movements. On the other side of the globe, in Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranayke became the world’s first female prime minister in 1960. She was elected in three different terms—a world record. Her daughter, Chandrika Bandaranayke Kumaratunga, is one of the longest-served presidents in the country. Women and minorities were predominant in universities, government, education and private sectors in Sri Lanka ever since it’s independence.

Current, 1978 constitution is, by far, the most minority-friendly constitution in Sri Lanka, and its inventor, Junius Richard Jayewardene, was a converted Buddhist. His ancestral name was “Thambi Mudiyanselage”; “Thambi” means Muslim, but it didn’t deter him from securing five-sixths majority in the parliament in which Tamil United Liberation Front became the main opposition in 1978, security 18 seats (11% representation in the parliament). Until 1988, Sri Lanka’s leader of the opposition was a Tamil. Minority parties, Thondaman’s Workers Congress and Ashroff’s Muslim Congress, became “king makers” in Sri Lanka as proportional representation system, established by the 1978 constitution, did not ensure a clear mandate for a single political party—they had to form coalitions with minority parties to secure the majority in the parliament.

Present parliament has 32 Tamils (14%) and 24 Muslims (11%)—altogether 25% minorities. It is well-represented based on demographic proportions.

Two well-respected Tamils were in the verge of becoming prime ministers in Sri Lanka, Neelan Tiruchelvam, a Harvard lawyer, and Laxshman Kadirgamar, an Oxford lawyer, both were assassinated by the LTTE. Another Tamil, who represented a Sinhalese electorate, and had promising hopes to succeed Mahinda Rajapaksha as the leader of SLFP, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, was also assassinated by the LTTE. Out of 30 parliamentarians killed by the LTTE, the majority (18) were Tamils. Will Sri Lankans ever get a chance to elect a Tamil president if LTTE keep eliminating Tamil intellectuals?

Culturally, religiously and in physical appearance, Sinhalese and Tamils are the most similar ethnic groups in the world. They share a number of traditions including the New Year. Hinduism and Buddhism originated in India and have many parallel features. Those are the only religions in the world that preach rebirth. Buddhism acquired many practices from Hinduism including the “worship of Gods.” Consequently, all the Gods Buddhists’ worship are Hindu Gods. Similarly, Lord Buddha, being one of the appearances (avathara) of Vishnu, is a God in Hinduism.

One of the most famous Hindu Gods pertaining to business transactions is Skadakumar, who has a popular temple in Katharagama, down-south. My father, a Sinhalese, who is a strong devotee of the God Skandakumar used to drive over 300 miles (a very long distance in the context of Sri Lanka) every three months to pay homage.

Unlike Blacks and Whites in the U.S., Tamils and Sinhalese are look alike. One cannot distinguish a Tamil from a Sinhalese by physical appearance, which brings an interesting question of how the alleged marginalization is possible in such circumstances.

Comparison of Sri Lankan separatism and American civil rights struggle is comparing apples to oranges. Sri Lanka hadn’t had a segregated school system; separate restaurants, bars, theaters or restrooms for Tamils and Sinhalese; it wasn’t the law of the country that Sinhalese sit on the bus, while Tamils stand; a Tamil was not considered as three-fifths of a Sinhalese. In order to curb this inhuman discrimination, U.S. had to draft stiff legislation such as the Civil Rights Act.

The most recent population statistics in Sri Lanka and the U.S. reveal:
Sinhalese 73%
Northern Tamils 13%
Muslim 7%
Hill Country Tamils 6%
Other 1%
Source: Department of Statistics, Sri Lanka
White 66%
Hispanic 15%
Black 12%
Asian 4%
Other 3%
Source: 2007 ACS (U.S. Census Bureau)

It is unjust to play a numbers game, while thousands of our people Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims alike are suffering. Having said that, statistically, there are significantly more Sinhalese in Sri Lanka than Whites in the U.S. Nevertheless, a more plausible comparison of ethnicities could be drawn between Hispanics and Tamils. Like Northern Tamils, Hispanics are the largest minority in the U.S. and are immigrants, but Blacks were brought to the U.S. for forced labor by the British, who brought Hill Country Tamils for tea plantation. Hill Country Tamils, who are different from Northern Tamils, have had a very strong political presence in the parliament through their venerated leader, Savumiamoorthy Thondaman, one of the most influential politicians in Sri Lankan history, who held powerful ministerial portfolios. Hill Country Tamils have never complained about mistreatment. Therefore, Northern Tamils are more comparable to Hispanics than Blacks.

There is no language division among ethnicities in Sri Lanka, which has two official languages: Tamil and Sinhala. Muslims, original Arabic speakers, speak Tamil for convenience because they are concentrated in areas populated by Tamils. My wife and her sister spoke Tamil when they were young because they were raised in hill country, where their farther was a headmaster. I spoke a little bit of Tamil, when I shared a room with two Muslim students from Batticaloa.

Like any other democracy, there are many problems in our political system, yet, those do not warrant a war. The claim that Tamils are marginalized in Sri Lanka is unfounded propaganda. Tamils and Sinhalese have a lot in common than otherwise; therefore, let’s stop this numbers game and build consensus to eliminate extremism to develop our nation together—“united we stand, divide we fall.”

Sanjeewa Karunaratne can be reached at


Wijesinghe said...

When you say that it is 'unfounded propaganda to claim that Tamils are marginalised in Sri Lanka' you already show that either you don't know or don't want to know about the numerous incidents that have occured. I am a Sinhalese who has worked both in the South & the North of our land. If we are unwilling to accept that the Sinhalese have gravely wronged the Tamils just as the Tamil terrorists have killed many innocent Sinhalese...there is no hope for Sri Lanka. Like South Africa when they turned away from apartheid our ONLY HOPE FOR PEACE IS TO FORGIVE EACH OTHER & START ANEW.

mary said...

I am a music teacher from Yorkshire living in London and know little of the Tamil/Sinhalese trying to understand more to understand my Shrilankan students....your blog has a ring of truth to the very essence of all conflict.....acceptance of pain on both sides and forgiveness surely brings a message of hope....keep on wishes from Mary the fairy xxx