Discrimination in Sri Lanka – The reality
Following is the speech delivered by Dr. Nalaka Godahewa at the 36th session of the UNHRC in Geneva on 27 September:
Mr. President, a myth has been spread over the years, that there is discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Out of a population of 22 million people in Sri Lanka, 11.2% are Northern Tamils while the upcountry Tamils who came to Sri Lanka during British colonial times, are about 4.1%. But these are not the only minority communities in Sri Lanka; 9.3% of the Sri Lankan population are Muslim. Several other minority communities such as Burgers and Malays amount to 0.6% of the population. The majority community is obviously Sinhalese at 74.9%.
Since we gained independence in 1948, we have been repeatedly hearing this complain that there is discrimination against Tamils. But interestingly, no other minority community in Sri Lanka seems to be complaining about discrimination based on ethnicity. Why?
That is because, discrimination based on ethnicity is a myth, created and successfully promoted by the Tamil political leadership for so many decades. It is pure political propaganda with an ulterior motive.
Let me explain what I mean here. Since colonial rule, we have always had Tamils holding very high positions in our country, whether it is in politics, Judiciary, academia, in the Government service or in the private sector.
Every Sri Lankan Government since independence has had high profile Tamil ministers in the Cabinet. A very good example would be our former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. When he was killed in 2005, by the Tamil separatists, Kadirgamar was a strong contender to be the next prime minister of Sri Lanka. Who knows – he could have even been the president of the country had he lived.
The Chief Justice of the country who recently retired is a Tamil – K.J. Sripavan. The current Governor of the Central Bank is a Tamil – Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy. Even his predecessor was a Tamil – Arjun Mahendran.
The last President of the Sri Lanka Bar Association was a Tamil – Geoffrey Alagaratnam. One of Sri Lanka’s most popular sportsman, Muttiah Muralitharan who holds the world record for the highest number of wickets in cricket is a Tamil.
Rudra Rajasingham, a Tamil, was a former Inspector General of Police. The current Navy Commander Tavis Sinnaiah is a Tamil. The Election Commission of the country has only three members and one of them is a Tamil – Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole.
Two members of the 10-member Constitutional Council are Tamils – Radika Coomaraswamy and R. Sambanthan. The Opposition Leader in Parliament is a Tamil – R. Sambanthan. There are 33 Tamil MPs in a Parliament of 225 members.
The present Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council C.V. Wigneswaran is a former Supreme Court Judge. The Director General of Customs P.S.M. Charles is a Tamil. The immediate past Chairman of the Colombo Stock Exchange is a Tamil – Krishan Balendra. R. Theagarajah, a Tamil, was the CEO of Sri Lanka’s largest development bank, NDB, until recently.
The largest media network – MTV, Sirasa – are owned by the Maharaja family who are Tamils. The largest supermarket chain – Cargills – is owned by the Page family who are Tamils. The largest brewery in Sri Lanka – Carsons – is owned by the Selvanathan family who are Tamils.
I could go on and on…!
So where is the discrimination based on ethnicity in Sri Lanka?
History behind it
To understand the truth behind this false propaganda, we must understand the history behind it.
The colonial rulers were well known for their policy of ‘divide and rule’. In order to create division amongst the communities, they offered the minority, administrative positions over the majority. As a result, when the independence was granted in 1948, the minorities, Tamils in particular, were holding most of the senior administrative jobs.
The high caste, Western educated, English-speaking Tamils who were holding senior positions in the Government under the British rule did not want to lose their positions of power when the country gained independence. That’s how the 50-50 power sharing demand was put forward by the Tamil leaders though they represented less than 10% of the population.
Wouldn’t that have been discrimination against the majority Sinhalese if 50:50 power sharing was granted as Tamil political leadership requested?
Let us now see what the actual position is with regard to the minority communities in Sri Lanka.
Even in our National Flag, while the Sinhalese are represented by the maroon background, the saffron stripe represents the Tamils and the green stripe represents the Muslims. How many other countries in the world have given such recognition to the minorities in the national flag itself?
All public documents carry both Sinhala and Tamil languages – the marriage certificate, the death certificate and the immigration forms are examples. All Sri Lankan currency and notes are in Sinhala and Tamil. All communities receive the same free education and free medical facilities in the country with no discrimination whatsoever.
There are no places anywhere in Sri Lanka that allows only Sinhalese to enter. Tamils, Muslims and all other communities enjoy same access to public utilities. Public transportation is common to all.
There is no race based discrimination is participating in sports or representing the country even at national levels.
So where is the so-called discrimination?
Discrimination in Jaffna
Having said that, I must also point out that discrimination still exists in Jaffna where there is a specific land law called Thesavalami. This law does not allow anybody other than a Tamil to buy land in Jaffna. But Tamils have no restriction whatsoever to buy properties elsewhere in the country. Then this is clear discrimination against the other communities.
You should also know that the real discrimination of Tamils actually comes from within their own community.
For example, the Jaffna Tamils think they are superior to the rest of the Tamils. The Trinco Tamils think they are superior to Batticaloa Tamils. Tamils in the north and the east have no regard for estate Tamils.
This discrimination apparently existed even within the LTTE who fought for a separate land for Tamils. Colonel Karuna, the former Eastern commander who defected the LTTE in 2004, has repeatedly mentioned in his interviews, that the northern cadres treated the eastern cadres as an inferior lot.
Can anyone deny that even today, the high caste Tamils discriminate against low caste Tamils in Sri Lanka? Do they sit and eat together; are there intermarriages between the high caste Tamils and low caste Tamils? Isn’t it true that those who mix-up are shunned by the rest?
There was a time even the places of worship did not allow the low castes Tamils to enter. There was a famous incident in 1957, when C. Sunderalingam, a former Cabinet Minister, slept in front of the gates of Nallur Kovil to prevent low caste Tamils being allowed to enter the place of worship.
Today the Tamil politicians cry about an imaginary discrimination based on ethnicity. But it was a Sinhalese leader, former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who passed a bill in Parliament in 1957 allowing equal rights to all Tamils. The bill was needed because the high caste Tamils were denying their own low caste Tamil people the basic human rights.
The Social Disabilities Act 21 which was passed in 1957 had to define some very interesting offences. It says:
No person can be prevented admission to a school because of the caste
No person can be denied employment because of the caste
No person can be prevented of entering and being served in a restaurant because of the caste
No person can be prevented or denied from using water from public water supply because of the caste
No person can be prevented or denied entering a public cemetery because of the caste
No person can be prevented or denied wearing any kind of clothes because of the caste
No person can be prevented from worshipping at any place of worship because of the caste
The list goes on…
Isn’t it shocking to even imagine that those people who have been propagating false propaganda about ethnic discrimination were actually denying the basic human rights of their own people?
Is the situation different today? Sadly the answer is no.
The caste-based discrimination is very much alive in Jaffna. That is why the Jaffna blood bank has to repeatedly seek support of Sinhalese to find blood for Tamil patients. There are always blood shortages in Jaffna hospitals because most of the residents are reluctant to donate blood thinking it will be given to someone from another caste.
During the war, it was Government soldiers who donated blood to Jaffna hospitals from which even the terrorists benefited. Just two months ago in June 2017, more than 200 soldiers and officers from the three armed forces donated blood in Jaffna responding to a special request from the blood bank.
Sinister forces have not given up
When post-independent Sri Lanka started offering equal rights to all citizens, the English-speaking, high caste Tamil politicians did not like it. When they couldn’t prevent it happening, they started poisoning the minds of ordinary Tamils with false propaganda that it is better for the Tamils to have a separate rule. The objective was very simple. The elite wanted to go back to their age-old practice of suppressing and exploiting their own people.
Unfortunately as it always happens, a lot of people were successfully misguided by these politicians. The emergence of terrorism, which brutalised the country for more than 30 years, was a result of this false propaganda.
Let us therefore be clear that Sri Lanka eventually faced a terrorist problem and not an ethnic problem.
Sri Lanka has now wiped out terrorism. The people of all ethnicities now want to live in peace and in harmony. They have nothing against each other. We accept Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and all other communities of Sri Lanka as citizens with equal rights. The Sinhalese have already extended their hands of brotherhood to the people of the north and the east. Since the end of the war, the bulk of Government development expenditure were routed to the north and the east. Economic development opportunities are now available to all Sri Lankans.
Yet the sinister forces have not given up. They continue to spread hatred. They continue to preach separatism. They continue to mislead the international community false information.
It is up to the ordinary Tamils now to assess the true situation and decide how far this bogus ‘self-determination’ bid will lead them to. The must figure out whether this cry for separatism is for the benefit of all Tamils or to give power back to the elite who are unhappy with the equal rights regime?
There was a time when all Sinhalese, Tamils Muslims and other communities lived in peace and harmony. It was the colonial rulers who disturbed that peace first. Now it is continued by some Tamil elite who have ulterior motives.
Rewrite our history books
We must come together once again to rewrite our history books. The older generation needs to separate the realities from the lies. The younger generation should not be taught to carry the aspirations of the old and must be encouraged to live in peace and harmony.
Let us therefore say no to ethnic-based solutions. Let us say no to the external forces who only want to divide us.
In conclusion, I like to emphasise once again that no minority is discriminated by any constitutional, legislative or judicial provision in Sri Lanka. Ethnicity-based discrimination in Sri Lanka is a total myth. Whether Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims we are all citizens of equal rights in a unitary state.