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Ethnic Tensions Swirl Around Those of Indian Descent in Sri Lanka and Fiji
Published on Tuesday, May 30, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Ethnic Tensions Swirl Around Those of Indian Descent in Sri Lanka and Fiji
by Ranjan Gupta
THE CIVIL WAR in Sri Lanka and the coup in Fiji have linked the Indian Ocean and the Pacific in a massive anti-Indian sweep.

In political terms, of course, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are Sri Lankans and the Indians of Fiji are Fijians. But if that were truly so, there would be no battles. The Indian identity, linked in core terms around religion and culture, is at the center of the conflict.

On a recent visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka, a taxi driver asked me where I was from. India? Where? Bengal, Calcutta, yes, but are you Hindu? The answer -- Hindu -- immediately put me in the enemy camp. The driver did not speak to me again.

In its most stark terms, the fight in northern Sri Lanka is a fight between Tamil culture and Sinhalese culture, cultures whose principal difference is religion. The Tamils are Hindus and the Sinhalese are Buddhists.

This puts India in a dilemma -- should it back Sri Lanka's government because it is a friendly neighbor, or support the separatist rebel Tamils, who have ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic links with one of India's southern states, Tamil Nadu? Such links cannot be discounted by saying they are with but one region of India. Any segment is part of the whole of India. To choose not to support the Tamils in Sri Lanka because Tamils are only one ethnic group in India, and predominant in only one state, is to alienate one's own population and invite secession.

How does the Indian become acceptable, be it in Fiji or Sri Lanka? Is it years of residence? Indian people have been in what was once called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, from the early centuries and stopped coming from India after the 15th century -- certainly long enough to make Tamils native Sri Lankans. Not long enough, however, for the Sinhalese.

Tamils have entered the professional class and prospered in business in Sri Lanka. They have become political leaders and won elected office. But even that was not enough for the Tamils to gain acceptance by the Sinhalese. Tamils have remained outsiders in Sri Lankan culture, as exemplified by adoption of the 1972 constitution which made Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the state religion. Earlier, the Sri Lankan government passed a law that raised the requirements for Tamil students but not for Sinhalese students for entrance into medical and engineering colleges.

The Tamils formed a guerrilla force known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers have been fighting for 17 years for a separate homeland for the country's 3.3 million Tamils, a minority of Sri Lanka's 18.6 million people, most of whom are Sinhalese. The conflict has claimed 61,000 lives. The Tamil leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, however alienated Tamils in India in 1991 when he ordered the cold-blooded assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during an election campaign in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Gandhi was killed by a human bomb because he made a deal with the Sri Lankan government to curb the power of the Tamil Tigers after he led Prabhakaran to believe he would back the Tamil Sri Lankans. Despite Prabhakaran's Tigers' spectacular victories on the battlefield in recent weeks against the Sri Lankan army, Tamils in India are lukewarm in their support of the separatist Tamil Tigers. Consequently, the Indian government may never support the Tamil Tigers. Despite defeat in battle, the Sinhalese refuse to accept the Tamils as full Sri Lankan citizens.

The U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen and the Norwegian special envoy to Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, held talks last week with representatives of Delhi and Colombo in what appears to be the first signs of a peace agreement that could bring the Sri Lankans and Tamils to the negotiating table. India's position on the peace talks is ambiguous

--Indian diplomats are being consulted by all parties but no Indian is taking an active role as a peace broker.

Pickering, after his meeting in Delhi, traveled to Colombo while Solheim went to Delhi after talks in Colombo on May 22. A two-way peace shuttle has begun.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government is buying $800 million in arms and aircraft from Israel, the Czech Republic and Pakistan, according to the Sri Lankan foreign minister.

Arms alone will not ensure victory for the Sinhalese, nor will victory assure the Tamils acceptance in Sri Lanka. Nor will establishing a separate Tamil homeland. Balkanization is no substitute for pluralism.

In Fiji, the seeds of conflict are similar. Democracy has proved a failure. Despite election by the majority of the voters, Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first prime minister of Indian descent, has been ousted from office and taken hostage by armed indigenous Fijian rebels. The rebels are angry that ethnic Indians have power in a nation where the majority of the population is indigenous Fijians.

Indians came to Fiji as indentured laborers to work on the British-owned sugar plantations beginning in 1840. Today, Indians represent 44 percent of the Fijian population, while 51 percent are indigenous Polynesians.

According to news reports, the rebel leader, George Speight, said he was overturning Chaudhry's government and taking power on behalf of indigenous Fijians, who he said have been discriminated against by the government led by Fijians of Indian descent.

Speight and other coup leaders want the Great Council of Chiefs, a council of indigenous Fijians, to decide if the elected government should remain in office.

War is the last resort in Sri Lanka. It is the same in Fiji. Passivity for the Tamil Indian in Sri Lanka, for the Fijian Indian in Fiji as elsewhere could be political extinction.

Ranjan Gupta was recently in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was a former Fellow at Harvard and Berkeley. He is the author of the book, ``The Indian Ocean: A Political Geography.``

2000 San Francisco Chronicle


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