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Resistance and resilience

Artwork by Keera Ratnam

Today on Maaveerar Naal Tamils around the world gather in memory of those who died fighting Sri Lankan state oppression. Emboldened by the thousands that gathered at destroyed LTTE resting homes (Thuyilum Illams) last year, preparations this year have been on the largest scale since the end of the armed conflict. Tamils across the North-East have braved intimidation from the military and intelligence personnel to clear and decorate Thuyilum Illams. This November has like those past seen a deliberate campaign of fear-mongering by the police, justifying the deployment of extra officers through citing an alleged rise in gang violence, which conveniently seems to rear its head this time each year.

Almost three years since the election of the ‘good governance regime’, Tamils are yet to see the reconciliation and progress promised by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The security forces’ continued hostilities against the Tamils are symptomatic of the embedded Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism of the state which the current government too has proved itself unwilling to address.

A year of ongoing protests by families of the disappeared and political prisoners illustrates the mounting frustration in the North-East at the government’s failure to fulfil key Tamil demands that were touted as ‘easy deliverables’.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) remains in place, its promised replacement and a list of current detainees remains elusive. The government’s boasts of land release, do not tally with the reality that the glacial pace of land release is accompanied by the ongoing state appropriation of land in the Tamil homeland, particularly for the use of the armed forces. Over 8.5 years ‘post-conflict’, military occupation of the North-East is as high as one soldier to every two civilians in Mullaitivu. Without demilitarisation, Tamils are left to rebuild their homes and livelihoods ringed by encroaching military camps. Despite international calls for the military to be scaled down and to remove itself from civilian affairs in Tamil areas, senior government figures have consistently made public statements reassuring their Sinhala voters that they will do no such thing.

In fact, Colombo has prioritised assuring its constituents in the South that the most essential Tamil demands around demilitarisation, accountability and self-determination will never be met. The Sri Lankan government and the international community are quick to reconjure the spectre of the Rajapaksas and the possibility of their return to power whenever faced with criticism on lack of progress. That narrative fails to recognise that the aversion to granting Tamils rights is pervasive across the Sinhala mainstream, from the Buddhist clergy to the Sri Lankan Bar Association.

Instead of holding Sri Lanka to account, the international community’s premature praise and reward for pledges rather than action, has only succeeded in emboldening the government’s unwillingness to fulfil key commitments in the areas of accountability, justice and reform.

Nothing underscores the absence of meaningful progress for Tamils than the reports published this month by the Associated Press of the torture and rape of Tamil men by state security forces during the current government’s rule. Under successive Sri Lankan governments Tamils continue to live with the threat of physical and sexual violence at the hands of the state. In response, the Sri Lankan state reverted to its default of denial and diversion. The military claimed the reports were lies and the government echoed its predecessor in touting hollow rhetoric about a ‘zero tolerance policy’.

It is now beyond question that the present government - despite having benefited from an abundance of international goodwill and the unwavering support of the Tamil National Alliance - lacks the will to act on the Tamil issue. Its refusal to fulfil its own commitments outlined in the co-sponsored UN resolution is with time only becoming louder. The president repeats assurances that no soldier will face a war crimes tribunal. It is equally evident that the international community’s current approach of rewarding the government without tangible action is not working. Failing to see through a repeal and replacement of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act before granting EU trade concessions is a prime example of how this approach has failed in bringing about meaningful change in Sri Lanka.

While the conditions of oppression and repeated attacks on the fabric of the Tamil nation continue with impunity, the sacrifice and resilience of the Maaveerar, who gave their lives to fight that tyranny will today burn bright in the minds of Tamils the world over. Their memory will live on in the resistance of the Tamil nation.