Tamil Elam was born in the nineteen fifties, when the Sinhalese majority in newly-independent Sri Lanka set about to build a national identity by appealing to Sinhalese nationalism. By an act of the Sinhalese-dominated parliament, a million Tamils were stripped of citizenship and franchise on the grounds that their parents or grandparents had been born in India. The proportion of Tamil voters in the electorate instantly dropped from 33% to 20%, giving the Sinhalese a lock on the 2/3 parliamentary majority needed to pass any law they wanted. Sinhalese became the official language of Sri Lanka. Tamil civil servants, who had dominated the English colonial administration, were summarily fired. Under the guise of agricultural schemes, the Sinhalese government pushed Tamils off their land, flooding newly-created enlarged tracts of farmland with previously landless Sinhalese. Pogroms and general oppression ensued. In the 1958 riots alone, 25,000 Tamils were forced to flee into the northern part of the island. An effort was even made to deport “stateless” disenfranchised Tamils to India. The Tamil response to this campaign was predictable and obvious.
At first, they followed the non-violent path of Mohandas Gandhi. Old men sat at the entrances of government offices, chanting hymns and preventing government clerks from entering by blocking the entrances with their bodies. The Sinhalese police beat them aside with clubs. Peaceful protests were dispersed by Sinhalese thugs acting with semi-official sanction. The peaceful way of satyagraha was of no avail. Gandhi’s approach had worked with the British because the refined British public and media would take their government to task over the perceived violations of Indian civil rights. It would not work against the Sinhalese because the Sinhalese public and media eagerly applauded the violation of Tamil civil rights.
By the nineteen seventies, the Tamil language was banned and Tamil contacts with the Tamil population of India were forcibly cut off. A policy of deliberate discrimination in everything from housing and employment to university scholarships pushed the Tamils to the fringes of society and sat the Sinhalese firmly on top. Sinhalese troops patrolled Tamil villages, assaulting anyone who dared to look at them the wrong way. A deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing was pushing Tamils deeper and deeper into the north of Ceylon. There was no doubt in the mind of any sane observer that the Sinhalese would not stop until they slowly, by stages, pushed the Tamils into the ocean. In fact, the Sinhalese said as much. Tamils, according to the Sinhalese, were foreigners who belonged in India.
When Tamil youth demanded action in the face of government oppression, their elders quelled them in the name of “national unity” and “non-violence”. They were told that Hinduism prohibited violence. They were told that parliamentary means could ensure their rights. They were told that this Tamil politician or that Tamil politician or some other Tamil politician would somehow magically make an agreement with the Sinhalese in exchange for his vote in one coalition or another.
The agreements were duly made. And they were duly broken. The oppression continued. In the end, the youth did the only rational thing they could have done. They rejected their elders. They rejected the Sinhalese State. They rejected non-violence. They demanded a country of their own. At gunpoint.
It was the seventies. The West seemed on the run, the Soviets were winning the Cold War and Marxist rebels were popping up the world over. For a young man rebelling against the established order and the religion of his elders, Marxism was the logical way to go. Therefore it is not surprising, though unfortunate for the Tamil people on Ceylon, that those who sought to liberate them from Sinhalese rule were mostly Marxists. In May 1976, a group of youth with Marxist rhetoric which adopted the name “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam”. Their leader, a twenty-one-year-old named Vellupilai Prabhakaran, who had already set the tone in July of the previous year.
Things spiraled out control from there and as it happens in conflicts of this type, all pretense of civilization was rapidly thrown aside. The point of no return came in July of 1983, when, allegedly in response to an LTTE ambush that killed 15 Sri Lankan soldiers, Sinhalese civilians rioted across the island, murdering some 3,000 Tamils. The rioters had official government voter lists showing the names and addresses of Tamils. The Sinhalese army and police stood by and did nothing for days as entire neighborhoods were burned to the ground. As Tamil motorists were pulled out of their cars and burned alive at improvised checkpoints, whole families were hacked to pieces in their living rooms and Tamil temples were put to the torch by Sinhalese mobs led by plainclothes police, spontaneity, unlike brutality, was not in evidence. The event would forever be remembered by the Tamils as Black July.
In response to this final atrocity, hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled abroad, while those remaining on Ceylon made their way to the North and East of the island, where the heretofore small-time pro-independence insurgency suddenly had no shortage of recruits. Asia’s longest running civil war was on in earnest, no holds barred.