Tamil national resistance and the limits of Sinhala liberal intelligentsia

Since the conclusion of genocidal massacres in Mullivaaykkaal and the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sinhala chauvinist Sri Lankan state has taken unparalleled measures to criminalize the commemoration of national resistance and to destroy its symbols in a bid to eradicate the spirit of national resistance among the beleaguered Eelam Tamils.

Likewise, counter insurgency measures have frequently been coordinated in the Tamil homeland by the occupying military to prohibit and prevent any form of commemoration of the tens of thousands of dead and the martyrs such as during the ‘Mullivaaykkaal Remembrance Day’ on 18th May or the ‘Great Heroes Day’ on 27th November. Not content with enforcing prohibition the genocidal military has also physically eradicated the Tamil people’s symbols of collective memory and the sacred spaces in which they were relived

For example, Lt. Col Thileepan, LTTE’s political wing leader of the Jaffna peninsula, who in 1987 during the Indian occupation embarked on twelve day hunger strike to death, was highly revered by the Eelam Tamil people as one who embodied the spirit of national sovereignty and resistance. Subsequently, the day of his death had been immortalized in the peoples social practice and as part of a popular tradition they observed a day of fast in respect. A memorial pillar had also been raised by the LTTE on the very location near the Nallur Kovil in Jaffna, where he had committed the ultimate sacrifice for his people.

On 22 March 2010, the Sinhala military demolished the memorial pillar of Thileepan and desecrated it further by throwing the remnants in a garbage dump. In a similar spirit, 25 LTTE burial grounds which contained over 20 000 tombstones were desecrated and completely destroyed by the military in the aftermath of 2009. Such acts of psychological and symbolic oppression in its cruelest form by the state have even forsaken the bloviated benevolence displayed by the King Duttagamini or Dutugemunu -  when commemorating the Tamil king Ellara who he had murdered in his war campaign of subduing the Tamils in the Island.

Sinhala society had long ago reached its moral corruption due to the entrenched position of state propaganda and the Mahavamsa mindset in the Sinhala collective psyche. Yet these acts displayed even a greater degeneration from the standards espoused in this chauvinist canon.

As Tamil memory and national spirit is profaned, the state glorifies its genocidal acts and the concluding day of the Mullivaaykkaal genocide is revered as Victory Day. It is on these two days that the psyche and collective will of both the nations are juxtaposed at its greatest. Characterizing the state of affairs in an occupied Tamil homeland the people are deprived of the right to commemorate or even mourn their dead. In stark contrast, the Sinhala nation under the aegis of the nation state, are lavishly and triumphantly facilitated to mark their Victory Day, when ‘terrorism’ was defeated on ‘Sri Lankan soil’. The day is presented as a national triumph, a historic achievement and a public celebration for the Sinhalese by the state, while the Mullivaaykkaal remembrance, which narrates the Tamil nation’s commemoration, is proscribed as subversive.

The opposition to the fascistic celebrations on the so called ‘Victory Day’ or in fact any chauvinist acts which glorifies carnage and genocide as victorious and national prestige is appallingly nonexistent in the South. Such public acceptance of the state and its actions, even during an event of such magnitude legitimizing genocide and injustice reflects the magnitude of deterioration of dissent in the Sinhala polity. It also indicates the omnipresence of the chauvinist Sinhala nationalist consciousness in public and political spheres in the South.

This brings to mind, what a group of prominent exiled Sinhala comrades told me once during an informal conversation, that the military defeat of the LTTE managed to effectively eradicate the liberal space that existed for the Sinhalese in the South too. In fact, what they precisely illuminated was a significant phenomenon which till date has not been much elaborated upon.

In their opinion, before 2009, amidst the unfettered national oppression and omnipotent chauvinism, liberal spaces existed in the South which facilitated dissent and opposition to the government and the state. This space cultivated discourses and articulations which allowed many Sinhalese to critically question the political and legal legitimacy of the existing state structure as well as its’ actions and rationally explore the Tamil liberation struggle.

During the above conversation, they illuminated how the change of military balance between the Tamil liberation struggle and the State provided a rationale to the Sinhala society to confront the state and understand the political situation of the Tamils in particular and the national question of the island in general. The military power of the LTTE had consistently exposed the weaknesses of the genocidal Sri Lankan state, consequently broadening the possibilities of change among the oppressor nation while laying the necessary conditions to realize of the inevitability of the righteous aspirations of the oppressed. It was understood that the Tamil national question must be dealt with by negotiated means, since a ‘military solution’ to the ‘conflict’ was deemed impossible.

The unseen link: Tamil national struggle and the Sinhala liberal space

Such a situation engendered a liberal space within the Sinhala national consciousness and public discourses in the south. Not only did it allow for a logic that helped to understand the historical conditions of the Tamil liberation struggle, it also created spaces which facilitated dissent emanating from within the Sinhala nation against the government.

This dynamic was effectively destroyed when the military solution was pursued with international facilitation, reaching its’ climax through the genocidal massacres in Mullivaaykkaal and which continues now as structural genocide.  It is to be noted that it was the convergence of the geo- political interests of several global and regional powers ranging from New Delhi, Washington, and West Minister which enabled the military solution to succeed in the island.

During the high time of the Tamil national struggle spearheaded by the LTTE, the liberal spaces provided discourses often articulated by a section of the Sinhala liberal intelligentsia  as exemplified in the writings of Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda and Dr.Sumanasiri Liyanage.

For example, in an article published on the 5th of October 2001 in the Island, Liyanage analyses the political situation in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the unprecedented military attack by the LTTE on the Katunayake International Airport in Colombo. He  writes that the attack “… has shown two things, namely, (i) the Sri Lankan security establishment cannot achieve a final military victory over the LTTE; (ii) the war cannot be confined to the North and Eastern part of the island. So the positive side of the LTTE attack on Katunayake airport and air base is that it brought these two essential truths home. People in every walk of life have now realized war, if continued, would affect the whole social fabric of the country. The Katunayake attack triggered a generalized crisis for the first time after 1988-89 period. It has amply demonstrated that the political and military leadership in this country cannot handle the situation effectively” [1]

It is needless to say that Liyanage provides sharp illumination of the relationship between LTTE’s military power, the de-legitimization of the state and the realization among the Sinhalese to come to terms with reaching a negotiated political solution with Tamils. He furthers that the Sri Lankan government has failed to perceive the Tamils in terms of a nation and consequently deal with politics of national self determination and secession.

He then provides a sobering analysis of the inevitability of the need for the Sinhalese to accept Tamil partition and concludes:

“My analysis of the genesis and development of Tamil nationalism and the present state of the military conflict in Sri Lanka leads me to believe partition through negotiation as a politically justifiable option. I emphasize the term "politically justifiable" because my belief is not based on ethical judgment or principles. Let me also add some cautionary remarks. Even the partition may bring about a solution to some ethno-politicial conflicts. It is definitely not a panacea and cannot be applied as a general rule in finding solutions to ethno-political conflicts. Nonetheless, I believe it has to be considered seriously as a possible and viable alternative.”

The metamorphosis 

Jayadeva Uyangoda, who penned a pioneering article in 1979 advocating Tamil nationhood and the right to self-determination, proved to have lost his spirit of solidarity towards the conclusion of the genocide and in its aftermath [2]. In an article published in 2010 titled ‘Sri Lanka Post the LTTE’, he callously concludes that the military solution to the conflict was ensured solely by the LTTE and that what occurred in May 2009 was the military annihilation of the movement and the struggle for Tamil liberation [3]. He is in effect maintaining tactical silence on addressing the genocidal nature of the war or the atrocities deliberately committed against Tamils. This was to characterize a range of former leftists who principally propagated Tamil political rights.

Sumanasiri Liyanage went even further and penned an article during the genocidal massacres in which he blatantly defended the states actions, refuted criticism of atrocities and genocide and in effect corroborated the government propaganda regarding the war.  It was published on 15th February 2009 in the Sinhala alternative weekly Ravaya and titled ‘Responsibilities of Social democrats in a post war setting’ [4]. Liyanage was, as evident in the title, ironically articulating the humanitarian responsibilities of leftist in a post war setting while the war was increasingly ravaging the Tamil homeland with causalities numbering over hundreds a day reaching its conclusion three months later in Mulluvaykal.  Liyanage, a self proclaimed Marxist did not even utter a slight criticism of the state or its armed forces while it was involved in deliberate massacres of tens of thousands of civilians. He saw it more fit to defend the brutal army of the oppressor with a rationale which criminalized the armed resistance of the oppressed.

“The immediate challenge the country is facing is to safely bring the Tamil people, who remain trapped and imprisoned inside the Tiger controlled war zone into the areas unaffected by war. That cannot be done through a ceasefire. Instead that can be only done by pressurizing to keep an escape path open to those people and creating an international pressure on the Tigers against their attempt to use them as a human shield…. There is no truth whatsoever in the comments made by some that the Government and the armed forces are planning to orchestrate a genocide. Instead, I think, perhaps the Tigers may have a need to push the government forces to commit such a genocidal massacre. For them it is a military tactic. But for the armed forces it is a military predicament.”

Liyanage wrote another article on 26th September 2011 titled ‘Tamil National Question: Accountability to whom? Inversing the order’ [5].  In it he joins the ranks of state centric intelligentsia sporting anti imperialism and Marxism in questioning the legitimacy of ‘alleged war crimes’ against the Sri Lankan state by stating that such pressure is advocated and pursued by the imperialist West and biased INGO’s. This is a sharp turn from considering Tamil secession as legitimate a decade before, to presently defending and shielding the Sri Lankan state from international pressure, feeble as it is.

He writes:

“Although it has not been expressed in explicit terms, the implication is that Sri Lanka and other poor countries should be held accountable to the Imperialist West usually disguised under some such coy pseudonym as ‘the international community’, ‘free world’, ‘democratic countries’, ‘liberal democracies’ etc. …The imperialist countries and civil society organizations funded by them have demanded that an international mechanism be set up in order to investigate ‘war crimes’ allegedly committed by the security forces of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) in the last phase of the armed conflict. “

He then proceeds to elaborate his perception of an internal ‘independent’ investigation:

“We need an independent commission that could look into all the aspects of war in its last phase and investigate that there was a conscious and deliberate killing or harming of civilians? Did the security forces attack places where civilians were? Although the GoSL claims that it adopted zero-civilian casualty policy, it was natural that the civilians would have been affected because of the nature of the armed conflict that deployed a mixture of conventional and unconventional methods. All the conflict data around the world show that in armed conflicts it was civilians who were killed and victimized more. In such a situation, the GoSL is responsible even if such incidents happened due to the nature of the armed confrontation. So an independent impartial commission may be appointed to investigate the civilian situation during the last 30 days of the conflict. A person like Prof. N Balakrishnan, former Jaffna University don, may be appointed as chair of that commission."

Completing his metamorphism into a prime propagandist and genocidal apologist for the Sinhala state he gave an interview to Sinhala mainstream daily Lakbima ahead of the recent 25th UNHRC session in Geneva [6]. In the excerpts reproduced underneath, Liyanage replies to a question which inquires whether there is a possibility to counter the threats of external international investigation into war crimes:

“Regardless of whether we conduct an internal investigation or not, it is highly important if we can take some kind of action to find out what happened during the war. But instead of that, if we keep repeating that we didn’t do any wrong, it is a naïve argument. In a War, people can die due to various reasons. On the other hand, compared to the number of civilian deaths in other conflicts in the world, only a small amount died in our country. Similarly, a majority in or armed forces did not kill civilians senselessly. There are only small number of incidents which can be used against the army, such as killing of students in Trincomalee……. If a civilian get killed as a result of attempting to target a suicide bomber, no one would consider that as a war crime. In every civil war, civilians get killed. The number of such allegations that can be leveled against our armed forces are quite insignificant. What we have to do is to use this to our advantage.”

Liyanage vividly elucidated his flamboyant endorsement of the genocidal crimes against the Tamils and his obnoxious attempts to absolve the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces. Paradoxically Liyanage ends his interview with self-promotion and Marxsist fervor.  He illuminates his long standing Marxist principles by informing that he is currently involved in educating youth in Marxism through his ‘Karl Marx School’ (sic) in Colombo!

What is characteristic of Sinhala liberal discourses in the post-LTTE period is their pious yet indirect adherence to the principles of Sinhala chauvinism or the Sri Lankan state. Even Liyanage accepted the military solution and was in effect indulged in legitimizing the genocidal actions of the state. He also corroborates the legitimacy of the unitary state, through defending its sovereignty against international interference.

Nevertheless, the prime example elucidating the phenomena of the metamorphosis of the self proclaimed Sinhala leftists is undoubtedly Dayan Jayatileke. Jayatileka, who in the 1980s held leftist views rationalizing the Tamil political struggle, proved paradoxical as he soon morphed into the staunchest chauvinist among the Sinhala intelligentsia. He has long been a key ideologue of the Sri Lankan state and has in several international forums propagated his connection to ‘Marxism’ to camouflage and legitimise his Sinhala chauvinist logic. Among the decision making circles of the Cuba-Venezuela-Bolivia bloc and before the UN Human Rights Council, he blatantly denies Tamil nationhood in order to legitimize genocide. It is also to be noted that Jayatileke during his liaisons with the Premadasa government in the late ‘80s, defended the brutal massacres of Sinhala rebellious youth in the South during the second insurrection staged by the Peoples’ Liberation Front (JVP) in 1989.  On 5th May 2014 he writes in the Colombo Telegraph as an introduction to an article:

“In the extreme situation that prevailed in Sri Lanka and the existential threat that confronted the State and society over a protracted period, the decision to wage all out war to defeat the Tigers was the right one, albeit long delayed, and the historical legitimacy of the victory (or double-barrelled victories, military and diplomatic) of May 2009 must be recognised and endorsed. The loss of the moral high ground by the Sri Lankan State was not during or because of the war, but after it. During the last war, including its last days, the State occupied the moral high ground if only in contrast to its fascistic opponent.” [7]

Dayan Jayatileke nefariously advocates that the first genocide in the 21st century must be recognized and endorsed as a historical and legitimate victory over ‘terrorism.’


This year, on the 5th anniversary of Mulluvaykal as the mood was triumphant in the South and in the mushrooming barracks of the occupying force in Eelam, the Tamils were subjected to intensified national oppression. The Sri Lankan state armed forces, who occupy the entire Tamil homeland, had reiterated the ban enforced upon any collective or individual action of remembrance while warning anyone against attending any memorial.

The army commander of the military occupied Jaffna peninsula, Major General Udaya Perea, has surpassed his predecessor Mahinda Haturusinghe in terms of enforcing military authority upon Jaffna by going to the extent of closing down the University of Jaffna to prevent the commemoration of [8].

Furthermore the Jaffna Senior Police Superintendent issued threatening directives, warning that “Any persons trying to hoist black flags, distribute leaflets or put up posters will be considered as supporting of terrorism and such persons will be taken into custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act”. He said steps were being taken to prevent such remembrance events. The SSP said the authorities had closed the Jaffna University to prevent any remembrance events there.”[9]

On one hand, even the acts of mourning and remembering are prohibited as the state fears the potential of such symbolic acts to revitalise the collective will of the Tamils for national emancipation. On the other, the disappearance of the liberal space in the south, which previously ensured some level of solidarity among the Sinhalese, has effectively set the ground to weaken any opposition to coercive state practices that curtail the right to remember. While the genocidal intent of the Sri Lankan state that aims to dismantle the political, economic, and cultural foundations of the Tamil nation is becoming very much visible, the moral degeneration of the Sinhala society is further exemplified by the absence of basic human solidarity or feelings of empathy towards the Tamil victims whose fundamental right to express their collective grief has been denied.

In these times of tyranny and mayhem, the incapability of the southern polity to collectively oppose the destructive conditions imposed upon the Tamils also has serious ramifications that affect the Sinhalese. While the extravagant state victory ceremonies demand the public to participate in and cherish national pride and Sinhala supremacy, the Rajapakse government accelerates processes of neo-liberalist economy, oligarchy, militarization and theocracy which rapidly transform even the Sinhala society against the interests of its’ own masses.

Lead photo courtesy: Kamal Kishore/Reuters - New York Times


Athithan Jayapalan is a student in social anthropology and studied in Oslo and Pondicherry universities. Born in Jaffna, he currently lives in Oslo, Norway.


1) ‘Partion as an Option’  Sumanasiri Liyanage (online) http://www.island.lk/2001/10/03/midwee07.html
2) ‘Are Tamils a minority?’ Jayadeva Uyangoda (online) http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=79&artid=37198
3)  ‘Sri Lanka Post the LTTE’ Jayadeva Uyagoda (online) http://www.india-seminar.com/2010/605/605_jayadeva_uyangoda.htm
4) ‘Responsibilities of social democrats in a post war setting’ Sumanasiri Liyanage / 15.02 2009, Ravaya, pg 6.
5) ‘Tamil National Question : Accountability to whom? Inversing the order’ Sumanasiri Liyanage (online)  http://sumanasiriliyanage.blogspot.de/search?updated-min=2011-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&updated-max=2012-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&max-results=19
6)  Lakbima 03.03.2014, page 4.
7)  ‘5th Anniversary of May 2009: Blocked Transition to Sustainable Peace’ Dayan Jayatileka (online) https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/5th-anniversary-of-may-2009-blocked-transition-to-sustainable-peace-2/
8) http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=37203
9) http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140511/news/war-memorial-events-banned-in-north-98763.html


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