The Tamils

01A_(2)-1.pngThe island of Lanka, known as Ceylon under British rule, has long been home to a variety of diverse linguistic, religious and ethnic people groups. Some of the more predominant groups include the majority low-country Sinhalese, the Kandyan Sinhalese, and the Ilankai Tamils – these groups make up some of the many people groups represented in the photo. This exhibition traces the unique struggle of the Ilankai Tamils. Although one territorial unit for centuries, the island had been ruled by each ethnic group as separate political entities. When the British arrived in the late 18th century, however, they chose to bring them together under a single English administration.

01A_(2)-1.pngThese photos depict Ilankai Tamils in 20th century British Ceylon. The images are typical of those taken by foreign photographers in a historical moment dominated by colonialism and imperialism.

01A_(2)-1.pngMany of the images from this era depict the colonized peoples as objects of the colonial gaze. It is important to note that these are deliberately posed photos of individuals, and may not provide a historically accurate representation of what Tamils looked like in the periods in which these images were taken.

01A_(2)-1.pngBefore the arrival of the British in Ceylon, the Tamils - in the north and east - had a distinct, flourishing maritime economy focused around the Jaffna peninsula, with Tamils conducting trade activities throughout South Asia. Under Dutch and Portuguese rule, Tamil autonomy was respected, allowing for the fostering of a cooperative economic relationship that enabled the Dutch to build ports and forts, such as the 17th century Dutch fort in Jaffna pictured in the photo.

When the British arrived on the island, they implemented an economic policy that shifted the trading focus from the North to the predominantly Sinhalese city of Colombo in the South. The British seized the ports in the Northeast, severely handicapping the traditional Tamil economy. Enormous resources were poured into Colombo, which was built as the principal trading city and major port of the country. By doing so, the British largely eliminated the traditional livelihoods of the Tamils; conventional economies were destroyed, local trade imploded, and harbours and ports were neglected and even abandoned after British seizure.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn the photo, we can see the ruins of the Jaffna fort, which was seized by the British in the late 18th century.

01A_(2)-1.pngAs the economy began to increasingly revolve around Colombo, the British invested in the development of coffee and tea in the central Hill Country region of the island. In order to carry out this vision, the British brought over hundreds of thousands of Tamils from Southern India to clear the jungle and work on these plantations.

01A_(2)-1.pngThis photo show these Tamils working on tea plantations under the supervision of British colonial officials.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe effects of these colonial actions were twofold. First, the demographic balance of the island was disturbed by the arrival of a massive number of Tamils from India. The presence of these large populations of Tamils from India would gradually play into Sinhalese fears of an Indian and Tamil takeover of the island, thus leading to the development of extremist Sinhala nationalism. (The photo shows tea and coffee being loaded onto ships in Colombo for export.)

01A_(2)-1.pngSecond, the traditional economic balance was disturbed, leaving the Tamils of the North in a state of financial disarray as Colombo gained economic and trade dominance (The photo shows Colombo Port.)

01A_(2)-1.pngThe American Ceylon Mission was established in 1813 (Mission congregation pictured), whereby protestant American missionaries developed programs and built schools to educate and convert the Ceylonese. For geopolitical reasons, the British confined the American Ceylon Mission to the north around Jaffna, away from the major hub of the country in Colombo. This was partly due to the fact that the American missionaries often held progressive, anti-colonial views that could threaten the stability of the colony. Given the economic devastation throughout the north, the Tamil society welcomed the opportunities that came with the American missionary schools. Among other programs, the American Ceylon Mission introduced women’s boarding schools, kindergartens, and what would remain the only medical school on the island for decades. The schools produced a disproportionate number of English educated students among the Tamils, as compared to their Sinhalese counterparts. As a result, the Sinhalese would come to resent the English-speaking Ilankai Tamils of the north.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn 1948, Ceylon gained its independence from the British Empire. The photos show the British Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, who were present to observe the official transfer of power to Ceylon.

01A_(2)-1.pngAt the moment of Ceylonese independence, many local leaders had demanded the implementation of a federal system to address ethnic tensions and economic disparities. Nonetheless, the British refused to listen to the Ceylonese voices, and declared Ceylon a single dominion, in accordance with the British policy of unifying the island. The decision to merge these distinct societies under a single dominion banner would have lasting ramifications on Sri Lanka’s long-term political trajectory.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn 1956, Ceylon experienced the first phase of the extremist chauvinist form of Buddhist Sinhala nationalism, with the introduction of what has been deemed the “Sinhala Only Act,” formally known as the Official Languages Act. The core objective of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Only Act was national language reform, whereby Sinhala was made the sole official language of Sri Lanka. In the photo, PM Bandaranaike can be seen speaking to Sinhala language enthusiasts at a rally.

01A_(2)-1.pngWhile the Sinhalese claimed the Act was an opportunity to distance Sri Lankans from the English language of their colonial past, Tamils felt excluded and threatened by the Act.

01A_(2)-1.pngAs seen in the photos, many Tamils held non-violent sit-ins as a reaction to the language bill where they faced violent attacks from Sinhala nationalists.

01A_(2)-1.pngOver the next two years, communal violence and strife persisted in wake of this legislation, with some Sinhalese going so far as to black out Tamil lettering from signs and businesses as depicted in the photo.

01A_(2)-1.pngThis Act marked the first modern manifestation of ethnic conflict between the Sinhala and Tamils. The failure to bridge language differences would lead to increasingly soured relations between the two groups.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn the years following 1956, acts of dispossession and discrimination against Tamils increased throughout the country. The photo depicts the erection of a Buddhist shrine over a Christian site. This desecrating act became a common characteristic of extremist Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. Even today, Buddhist shrines are often erected on traditionally Christian or Hindu Tamil land taken over by the military. In 1972, the government awarded recognition to only the Buddhist Sinhala identity of the nation. As pictured in the photo, in 1972 Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike officially elevated Buddhism to the position of state religion, while changing the name of the country to the Sinhala word, “Sri Lanka.” This was a devastating moment for Tamils, whose identity no longer had a place in the dominant political discourse of Sri Lanka.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe conflation of Buddhism with the Sri Lankan state is represented in this photo, which shows a statue of a Sri Lankan soldier raising his arm victoriously placed next to a Buddhist shrine.

01A_(2)-1.pngThis era brought with it many other forms of discriminatory measures implemented against Tamils, such as the introduction of the university “standardization” policy in the 1970s.

01A_(2)-1.pngTamil students can be seen protesting this policy in this photo, which sought to increase the percentage of Sinhalese in universities while limiting Tamil enrolment.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe destruction of the Jaffna library is perhaps the most dramatic and poignant moment in modern Tamil history. One of the largest libraries in South Asia, it contained 95,000 irreplaceable Tamil books. On the night of June 1st, 1981, Sri Lankan police officers and organized Sinhalese mobs took to the streets of Jaffna in mobs, carrying out acts of arson and violence. The mob torched the market area, political headquarters, and worst of all, the Jaffna public library. The burning of this library became emblematic of the cultural genocide Tamils faced. Years after the devastating event, a boy rides his bicycle outside the burned out shell of the building.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn 1976, as a reaction to the exclusionary measures progressively instituted against Tamil citizens, and repetitive attempts to dispossess Tamils of their land, positions, and culture, Tamil leader Velupillai Prabhakara founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The group led a violent secessionist campaign calling for the liberation of the northeast of Sri Lanka, which they called Tamil Eelam. By 1986, the LTTE had become the primary group fighting for Tamil liberation after the government crushed other Tamil separatist groups. The LTTE permeated every level of Tamil society - even admitting children into its ranks. As seen in the photo, soldiers wore cyanide around their necks to be ready to die for the cause, if necessary.

01A_(2)-1.pngThis photo shows young Tamil female recruits to the LTTE.

01A_(2)-1.pngThis photo shows Tamil girls passing by a memorial for fallen fighters. Tamil militants garnered broad popular support within the Tamil community but also became known over time for committing atrocities.

01A_(2)-1.pngBlack July is the name used to refer to the weeklong pogrom that was carried out in July 1983 by Sinhala nationalists against Tamils in Sri Lanka.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe violence was first unleashed against the Tamils in Colombo, as Sinhalese extremists went out to loot and destroy Tamil business, kill Tamil civilians, and burn their homes as seen in the photos.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe horror of Black July can be witnessed in the very brutal photo, where a Tamil boy in Borella was stripped naked and ultimately beaten to death.

01A_(2)-1.pngLike the “Sinhala Only” riots of 1956, Tamil lettering was frequently crossed out and replaced with Sinhala lettering.

01A_(2)-1.pngWhile the violence initially broke out in Columbo, it quickly spread across the country where almost 2000 Ilankai Tamils were killed. The damage in Colombo alone was about 55 million pounds, with the refugee toll at nearly 100,000.

01A_(2)-1.pngMany Tamils escaped the country to India during this week of violence. The Sri Lankan government did little to stop the violence: the president waited more than four days to make a public statement, and there is evidence that security forces participated in the riots. Black July marks the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War, a war that continued until 2009.

01A_(2)-1.pngDespite ongoing efforts at peace talks, the Sri Lankan civil war lasted for almost three decades bringing widespread destruction, killing 80,000-100,000, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the violence as refugees. Many Tamil refugees escaped to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe hundreds of thousands of refugees who did not flee the country often ended up in overcrowded camps for years.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe north of the country – the historic Tamil region – suffered the worst destruction. In the photo, Tamil civilians stand outside their destroyed Hindu temple.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn the photo, in 2002, a boy stands among the ruins of homes in Jaffna, a city which suffered massive destruction during the war.

01A_(2)-1.pngThis photo shows Tamil students studying in a school without walls and covered in bullet holes.

01A_(2)-1.pngBy May 2009, the LTTE was making its final stand after a three-decade war of attrition with the Sri Lankan Army. Between January and April 2009, the UN reported that over 6,500 civilians had been killed and 14,000 wounded, although some suggest the numbers are too low. The photo shows a Tamil man carrying a coffin on his back. By the end of the war, coffins were abandoned as the number of casualties soared.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn May, the government had driven the last remaining LTTE fighters onto a narrow peninsula in the north. Alongside the LTTE fighters, thousands of Tamil civilians were trapped in this isolated territory. Despite pleas from the UN and international community to protect civilians and avoid a bloodbath, the Sri Lankan Army advanced and destroyed the remnants of the LTTE.

01A_(2)-1.pngAs expected, many Tamil civilians fled and many were killed as they tried to escape to safety during the final days of the civil war.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe number of casualties resulting from this final stage of the war has been a disputed topic. However, UN reports indicate that the Sri Lankan Army killed at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in the last few months of the war, with hundreds of thousands more becoming victims of displacement and dispossession. Children were especially vulnerable at the end, with large numbers killed during the final weeks of the war.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe photo shows the small, exposed peninsula where tens of thousands made their final stand.

01A_(2)-1.pngThroughout the civil war in Sri Lanka, Tamil Canadians took to the streets to protest human rights violations.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn the photo, Canadian Tamils can be seen staging a sit-in outside the Eaton Center in downtown Toronto.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe photos depict Tamils in Canada gathering in a show of solidarity with Tamils in Sri Lanka during the final months of the civil war in 2009.

01A_(2)-1.pngDespite the formal end of the civil war in 2009, thousands of Tamils remain unaccounted for.

01A_(2)-1.pngNotwithstanding the danger to themselves, Tamils in Sri Lanka continue to challenge the government to reveal the locations of their missing relatives.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe Sri Lankan government frequently targets critical journalists, many of whom have been “disappeared” in recent years, and organizations have sprung up across Sri Lanka to help protect journalists.

01A_(2)-1.pngManik Farm, pictured above, was one of several camps used to detain thousands of Tamil refugees against their will following the LTTE’s final stand. The Sri Lankan military would confront any Tamil refugees who fled from areas controlled by the LTTE, treating them as terrorists and forcibly detaining them in camps such as this. Once the world’s largest camp for internally displaced people, at its height Manik Farm held over 200,000 people. With mobility restrictions, limited access to water, lack of proper medical treatment, and inhumane sanitation levels, many have called Manik Farm an open prison. Many of the injustices that occurred in Manik Farm passed under the radar, as the Sri Lankan government rarely granted journalists access to the camps.

01A_(2)-1.pngOfficially, the civil war and struggle over control of the northeast part of the island reached its end in 2009. Nevertheless, tension continues to brew in this region as Tamils face continued dispossession and displacement. State-sponsored colonization of traditional Tamil areas has been underway since the 1950s in Sri Lanka, undermining the Tamil demographic majority in the northeast.

01A_(2)-1.pngThe Sri Lankan Army often occupies Tamil territory in the name of “military use” but later expands its activities outside of military functions, establishing construction projects, businesses, farms, resorts, restaurants and cafes throughout the north-eastern provinces.

Through its military ventures, the Sri Lankan government has managed to assert its presence strongly over large portions of the Tamils’ traditional territory.

01A_(2)-1.pngMany of the government’s ventures are built over property that belonged to Tamil families who were displaced by the war. For example, in the photo, a Tamil couple who were displaced during the war can be seen looking for the ruins of their home in a military zone marked by barbed wire.

01A_(2)-1.pngIn this photo, a young girl defiantly displays the deed to her family’s land, which is now being occupied by the Sri Lankan Army. Despite ongoing petitions to the government, Tamil property claims usually fall on deaf ears.