Subjugation in Disguise II: Trading justice for 'reconciliation'

Read part 1: Subjugation in Disguise : False models of multiculturalism and reconciliation

Tamil populations situated in various countries in the Indian Ocean region, from Sri Lanka, and India to Burma and the Malay Peninsula have been subjected to the hegemony of ruling elites of the dominant nations who effectively inherited the colonial state. The post-colonial states are in fact transpired from administrative formations forged by imperialist interests. Yet to obfuscate such structural conditions, Singapore and its Tamil elites are often projected as the success of pluralistic existence, multiculturalism, liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, tacitly promoted by Western establishments and former colonial masters as a model to resolve Tamil collective grievances. A brief venture into the modern historical context of South-East Asia, its Tamils, the geo-political interests of the post-colonial state and world establishments will be useful in clarifying this point.

Tamils in South East Asia

The upper echelons of Tamil communities in Singapore hail from the migrated white collar workers from Tamil Nadu and Jaffna to the Malay Peninsula during British colonial rule in the 19th and  20th century. Parallel to the migration of the elites, Tamils of lower strata in far larger numbers arrived as indentured labourers. They were circumscribed by British instigated famines and then shipped into South-East Asia to work under appalling conditions in the colonial imperialist-corporate plantation economy. The trajectory of these communities and their development in various countries such as Burma, Malaysia and Singapore, has been strikingly different from the white collar migrants. As was the case with the national condition of Eelam Tamils, colonial geo-politics and its dynamics with the interests of comprador elites controlling the post-colonial state laid the foundation for the shackled development of various Tamil communities and their collective future.

In Malaysia and Burma (present day Myanmar) , which have also been home to various Tamil speaking people, the ruling elites controlling these nation-states have taken different approaches to its Tamils and the general multi-ethnic environment from Singapore.  The ‘sons of the soil’ (Bhumiputra) politics familiar to Eelam Tamils from the structural genocide perpetuated by the Sri Lankan state was also similarly garlanded by the Bamar and to a lesser extent by the Malay elites respectively. Consequently the Tamil speaking populations in Malaysia and Burma alongside other principle ethnic groups were subjected to widespread discrimination and violence. In Burma, during the 1950s these processes resulted in a mass exodus of Tamils back to India.  The Tamils who remained maintained a cultural existence through their own initiative, however do not enjoy linguistic or national rights. The prevalent situation in Burma is also coloured by ethno-chauvinism of the Bamars and other related Buddhist people such as the Arakanese, resulting in numerous other nations such as the Kachin, Karen and Rohingya being subjected to genocidal violence by the rulers driven by the intent to create a Buddhist nation-state.

In the face of geo-political realignment on the world, currently shaped and manifested in the Indian Ocean through the U.S. ‘Asia Pivot’ strategy and China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road Initiative’ and ‘String of Pearls’ strategies, countries like Burma and Sri Lanka were benefitting immensely by tapping resources from both global rivals by accommodating their respective strategic interests. Despite the tilt towards a multi-polar world, the above mentioned geo-political dynamics are insidious from the perspective of the oppressed as erstwhile rivals in the logic of the free market attempt to out-bid each other by supporting the same oppressor state.

Malayan experience

In Malaysia, the growth of Islamic Malay right-wing nationalism resulted in the continuous infringement upon the country’s Chinese and Tamil populations. This trajectory follows the predicament of the British imperial rulers in the mid-20th century who subjected the Chinese and Tamil populations of Malaya to heavy oppression during an unprecedented counterinsurgency war named the ‘Briggs Plan’, deployed to crush the struggle of the Malayan communists waged by the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The Malay government followed this model through the post-independence era until communist surrender in 1989 all the while pursuing neo-liberal economic policy characterised by Malay preferentialism and chauvinism. In contrast to Burma and Singapore, the Tamils in Malaysia were numerically stronger with a large section hailing from labouring and lower classes who worked the exploitative plantation economy.

Such oppressive conditions led Tamil communist leaders such as G.A. Ganapathy, P. Veeraseenan and R.G. Balan, who along with their Chinese and Malay communist comrades spearheaded the anti-imperialist people’s struggle of the Chinese, Tamils, and Malay against British rule. This sort of equity garlanded true democracy, internationalism and co-existence between the various ethnicities based on social and political justice. Nevertheless the MRLA was destroyed and the people mobilized were divided between a right-wing Malay ruled federation of Malaysia and a right-wing Chinese mandarin ruled Singapore.  Due to their numerical strength and tradition of being unionised, the Tamils retained limited political power through popular mobilization and are till today involved in struggles to win equal rights. This is evident from the political offices held by Tamils in certain regions of Malaysia.

Lee Kuan Yew: 'Father' of whom?

The historical context of colonialism and counter-insurgency set the stage for the development of Singapore as a Western allied free market city state, controlled by the dynasty of Lee Kuan-Yew. Despite international praise, Singapore has been criticized for accommodating Mandarin dominance at the expense of Malays, Tamils and non-mandarin Chinese. Lee Kuan-Yew accommodated Indian, Tamil and Malay elites, while imposing an exploitative economic system which suppressed other sections of the principle ethnic groups including the ‘native’ Chinese.  There has also been criticism levelled by Tamils in Singapore citing that Tamil religious festivals such as 'Thaipoosam' are not recognized and have been subject to suppression whereas non-Tamil Hindu festivals such as Deepavali and the Buddhist Vesak are sanctioned by the state. Moreover the curtailing of labour rights affecting Tamils also transformed itself to political suppression, such as during the genocidal massacres of Eelam Tamils in Mulli’vaykal in 2009, while Tamils around the world were thronging the streets to protest Sri Lanka’s military onslaught and the international complicity, Singaporean authorities prevented Tamils from partaking in the global Tamil phenomenon. Singapore also displayed its anti-people policies during the ‘Little India riots’ of 2013 deploying heavy handiness in the quelling of protests by migrant labourers from Tamil Nadu.

During the 1980s, Lee Kuan-Yew also assisted J.R. Jayawerdena during his economic liberalization era in launching an airline for Sri Lanka. Significant to recall is that during this period in Sri Lanka the state oversaw the deployment of counter-insurgency with British and Israeli advisors in full force against the fledgling Tamil national liberation struggle in the North-East as well as against the Sinhala youth led insurrection of the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) in the South during the late '80s. Lee Kuan-Yew and Singapore neither opposed nor condemned J.R. Jayewardene or the Sri Lankan state which cultivated ethno religious chauvinism with a fascist character.

It is likely that the affiliation with Tamil elites and free-market capitalism induced the 'father of Singapore' to speak against a China friendly regime in Colombo in recent times.  A history of being subjected to oppression from established nation-states and apathy by the international community led Tamils to garland Lee Kuan-Yew as he was regarded as the only leader from the international community who addressed the oppression of Eelam Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet as stated in his autobiography, it is evident that he specifically uses the parochial terms 'Jaffna Tamils' to denote the nation of Eelam Tamils and refers to Mahinda Rajapaksa as a Sinhala extremist, while absolving the state from its genocidal practices. His accommodation of Tamil elites could be argued as engendering his remarks on Sinhala extremism which was confined to merely one regime in Colombo.

In terms of multiculturalism, the policies which Lee Kuan-Yew institutionalized in Singapore served Western corporate and imperialist interests and the locally affluent, while other sections of the Tamils, Chinese and Malay were rendered disadvantaged.

Conclusion: Remembering the Spirit of Resistance

In the present day conditions, the collective emancipation and development of the Tamils cannot not be achieved  by following a free-market system to appease capitalist establishments. At a time when Tamils are subjected to various forms of oppression in Eelam as well as in various other countries around the world, it is absolutely essential to break away from the subservient mentality in order to re-evaluate the strategies of emancipation.

This is where the importance of  D.Sivaram (Taraki) as a phenomenal politico-military analyst, revolutionary writer and intellectual , who tirelessly dedicated his life to the interests of the people becomes crucial. His pioneering writings are a beacon for the oppressed, in particular Eelam Tamils, to evade pitfalls and to look through the false discourses of reconciliation. Taraki would exposed most of these processes as merely an extension of counter-insurgency techniques in destroying the spirit of resistance among the oppressed.

Guided by Taraki’s legacy, Tamils and others oppressed should restrain from idolising champions of the 'international community' of establishments which perpetuate political injustice and conditions of subjugation. The collective knowledge production (epistemology) among the oppressed should be developed in the present through their own history of resistance as well as that of other similarly situated nations across the world.

In this regard rather than the elite multiculturalism of Singapore, it is G.A. Ganapathy, P. Veersenan and the MRLA who remain a prime example of how national equity facilitates inter-national union, co-existence and comradeship to serve the masses and to fight external and internal exploitation. Likewise, Tamils need to collectively grasp the the revolutionary prospects of the national liberation struggle of Eelam spearhead by the LTTE as a fundamental source of inspiration to emancipate their usurped rights of living with equity and dignity. Hence, Tamils should not blindly garland a system of authoritarian capitalism backed by the US, Japan and UK; the co-sponsors of Sri Lanka’s genocidal counter insurgency war against the Tamils.

When politics of blackmailing and strategic interests overshadow genocidal oppression, it is the sovereignty of the people that needs to be given utmost priority instead of appeasing the perpetrators and their global masters. Such obfuscations will extinguish the spirit of resistance which is imperative to secure justice.

Lead photo: Tamil students forced to honour SL Army soldiers during a 'victory celebration' in Palaly, Jaffna - May 2012 / Courtesy -


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