Kandy, July 25: In a seminar hall at the prestigious Peradeniya University in this former capital of Sri Lanka, students, teachers and Buddhist clerics assemble to answer queries from visiting Indian journalists. Most of them expectedly relate to the over two-decade Sinhala-Tamil conflict and, with no resolution in sight, what this means to a generation that has grown up after the 1983 ethnic riots.
Tania Ekanayake was born that year. The trouser and shirt she wore, instead of the regimented, mostly black coloured full-length skirts slit a wee bit on the back, marked her out as a member of the “privileged” class of Sinhalas. The class that had the luxury of not dipping its hands in the blood spilt on the streets but the comfort of professing ideological and moral support to the street-fighters.
“Things are bleak. I see no sign of a resolution as both sides (the Sinhalas and Tamils) have hardened their stances. We are in perpetual self-denial mode. We tell ourselves there’s no conflict but the moment you are in the company of the Tamils, you sense the tension. But there’s a broad censorship that nobody will speak about it. Not even in the numerous seminars we have on conflict resolution,” she said.
Next to Tania were three Tamils. They hailed from Jaffna and gave out their names unwillingly. They came away because they were not fortunate enough to be part of the Tamil diaspora that fled the country but mostly made good in the West which offered them asylum. But they were lucky enough to get jobs outside the northeast. They maintained they didn’t support the “cause” of Eelam or the greater Tamil homeland because it was a “pipe dream”.
But mention the name of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and their eyes brighten. George (not his real name), a student, recalled that last week two churches near his home, under army “occupation”, were gutted by the soldiers. But no civilian died. “If it weren’t for Prabhakaran, I wouldn’t be speaking with you.”
And no, neither he nor his siblings were “forced” by the LTTE to join the cadres, contrary to the perception that every Tamil family had to “offer” an able-bodied progeny for Prabhakaran’s troops.
So, how did the Tamils perceive Prabhakaran'
There are three categories of Tamils: the residents of the northeast (broadly Jaffna and Trincomalee), the hills of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, and Colombo. Each group stressed that historically they had nothing to do with the other. The “upcountry” Tamils, for instance, sourced their origins to the plantation hands “imported” from Tamil Nadu and Kerala and still celebrated their links with their “homeland” through marriage and trade.
However, because every group suffered at the hands of the Sinhalas, Prabhakaran has emerged as a kind of presiding deity of the Tamils. In Matale town, near Kandy, Vivekanand, a shop owner, recalled how the business establishments of the “upcountry” Tamils were burnt by the Sinhalas.
“I would never have dared to rehabilitate myself in this place were it not for Prabhakaran’s invisible hand. I’m confident that he has put a brake on the Sinhalas’ ethnic-cleansing enterprise,” he said.
In Colombo, Meera (not her real name), the only Tamil working for a large publishing house, recalled how her father, a corporate sector executive, was thrashed by a mob in 1983 despite trying to pass off as a Sinhala.
“He spoke fluent Sinhala and nearly managed to escape when he was waylaid. Somebody spotted his pierced ears. That was a giveaway that he was a Tamil. From that day on, he became a silent but lifelong LTTE supporter. I often protested against their violence and undemocratic ways. But every time a Sinhala is killed, there’s a stony silence when I enter the office. It seems to suggest as though I am the assailant. At such moments, I realise why the LTTE is important to our lives,” said Meera.