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Tamils struggle for freedom in Sri Lanka’s ‘new democracy’

Mullivaikaal today is a picture perfect beach with a small fishing community. Boats line the seafront, stuffed with freshly caught fish, sting rays and even tiny sharks. It is hard to imagine that this beach was soaked in the blood of thousands of Tamils in 2009, as the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately shelled the last strip of territory controlled by the outlawed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The fishermen say they were allowed to return here in 2012, and the physical signs of massacre have mostly been erased now, apart from a few sand bags in a crater behind the beach. But the pain is still etched onto the memories of the survivors, and many live in ramshackle shelters struggling to make a living.

If Sri Lanka’s new president, Sirisena, can reconcile the grievances of the country’s Tamil minority, then Mullivaikaal will be a litmus test. Many of the families here are headed by widows, who lost their husbands in the final months of the war. When I asked a group of them if the new president has made any improvements to their lives, the response was a resounding no. One lady, Uma*, shrugged, held out empty hands and said Sirisena has done “nothing”. The women live in houses built by an Indian government aid scheme. For many, doors are an unaffordable extra in this scheme. Soldiers roam freely around the neighbourhood on tractors and in trucks. Plain clothed policemen turn up to women’s meetings. The beach, for all its beauty, has a very spooky atmosphere.

The Sri Lankan government has made sure that army and navy camps saturate this former rebel stronghold. Garish war victory statues blot the roadside landscape. Signs next to blown up water towers remind the Tamils to “SAY NO TO DESTRUCTION EVER AGAIN”. Driving along the highway, military bases appear every ten minutes, with grand entrances and plush buildings inside. Five-star hotels and key tourist attractions can be found inside some of these bases. Many were built on stolen land, and the displaced widows are told to register their family details with the army to have any chance of getting it back, a crude piece of bureaucratic intimidation that keeps them landless. The women say life here was better under the rebels, but that way of life has now been destroyed.

Remembering the dead

May 18 is the sixth anniversary of this destruction. All around the world on this day since 2009, Tamil people have gathered in huge numbers to remember their dead. Inside Sri Lanka, the mourning has had to happen in secret. The first year after the war ended, the Tamil Civil Society Forum tried to hold a commemoration service with priests, but hundreds of soldiers arrived outside. The army said to the organisers “If you do it I will suspect you as an LTTE sympathiser”. I.D. cards were taken from everyone and police went to priests’ homes at night and threatened to shoot them. But with a new president in place, activists are testing the waters of the so-called new democracy, and seeing what they can get away with.

“This year the commemorations will happen in public”, Father Elil Rajendram assured me. But as he is choosing a location for the memorial service in Mullivaikaal, a mysterious motorbike pulls up behind us, with the riders dressed in Denis the Menace striped polo shirts. These are intelligence officers, Father Elil explains, who are spying on the priest’s preparation. Despite the intimidation, local people still seem determined to attend. Uma says she is not scared to go, as her son was killed at the end of the war. Preparations are happening across Tamil towns and villages. As I arrive in Jaffna to meet another organiser, news comes through that his event has been banned by the police, to prevent ‘a breach of the peace’. The authorities say rival Tamil political groups could clash – a far-fetched scenario. Police seem unwilling to facilitate free assembly, instead inventing spurious reasons to ban or restrict public events.

The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), an opposition political party, circumvent the ban by switching locations at the last minute, and gather on a remote beach in Maruthankerni under a makeshift shelter. Buses venture for miles down a pot-holed road, and before long over a hundred people have arrived. Red and yellow bunting (Tamil national colours) is put up everywhere, and lanterns are lit. The commemoration goes ahead, but the organisers say Sri Lankan military intelligence are photographing everyone there. Father Elil’s multi-faith commemoration service in Mullivaikaal also went ahead, albeit under heavy surveillance. Participants started photographing the intelligence officers, perhaps a sign that the fear barrier is beginning to waiver. Hundreds of students and staff gathered at Jaffna university, and commemorations happened in all corners of the Tamil parts of Sri Lanka. A brave performance, but a sinister scene for a so-called democracy.

Tamil National Alliance vs Tamil National People’s Front

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is the traditional choice for Tamil nationalist voters, winning almost all the seats in former rebel-held areas. But many people feel that the TNA is not challenging the new president’s spluttering reforms enough. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, founder of the rival TNPF, says the TNA leadership gave Sirisena their “unconditional support” when he won the presidency, putting Tamils in a weak bargaining position. Ponnambalam was an MP for the TNA until the war ended, when he split from the party over fears that they were becoming compromised. Parliamentary elections are due any time in Sri Lanka, and the TNPF stands a chance of gaining at least one seat if it can reach out to Tamils who are also unimpressed by the TNA’s recent performance. But Ponnambalam says that going against the TNA with its money, media influence and historic association with the Tamil Tigers will be tough.

Ponnambalam says that even if he does not return to parliament this time, he is more interested in “building power outside the ballot box”, by which he means “mass peaceful mobilisations that could force the Sri Lankan state to make some real concessions to the Tamils”. In three decades of armed struggle, the closest parallel to Ponnambalam’s current thinking was the Pongu Thamil (Tamil Upsurge) events, which mobilised over a hundred thousand people to gather in support of Tamil self-determination year after year in towns across the region. Jay*, who was instrumental in starting those events, told me how they sent ‘animators’ to villages and organised small theatre performances, where local people gained confidence to share their stories, before coming together en masse at the Pongu Thamil gatherings. But he thinks that it could take 5 or 10 years for Tamil people to regain their confidence for that scale of mobilisation.

Protesting sexual violence or threatening national security?

And yet spontaneous protests are sweeping the Tamil regions, after an 18-year-old school girl Sivaloganathan Vithiya was brutally raped and murdered on Pungudutivu island off Jaffna on 14 May. The police allegedly told the girl’s family when they reported her missing that she had probably eloped with her boyfriend. Sexual violence in Sri Lanka has become synonymous with the security forces, but the prime suspects in this murder are Tamil civilians. A Tamil doctor told me that this case was a reflection of a wider breakdown of society under the pressure of a counter-insurgency strategy, where police and soldiers are allegedly pushing drugs and alcohol onto the youth.

Angry school kids have taken to the streets in large numbers and whole towns hundreds of miles away from Jaffna have shut down in hartal strikes. The protests reflect a widespread frustration at the vulnerability of Tamil women, and even a certain nostalgia for times when women could walk the streets safely at night in rebel held areas. But whether the protests will grow into more a sustained movement, like in India after the 2012 Delhi bus gang rape, remains to be seen. Already, hardline Sri Lankan nationalist politicians are branding the protesters as a new wave of Tamil Tiger militants, and calling for a harsh crackdown. Even demonstrations against sexual violence are seen as a threat to national security. The president has promised to create a ‘national security plan’ to prevent a ‘terrorist resurgence‘. On May 20, crowds in Jaffna were met with teargas and 127 people were arrested, as riot police, Special Task Force anti-terrorist commandos and soldiers came out on the streets.

Despite the militarised law and order situation, the UK is still training Sri Lanka’s police, even after the contract expired in March 2015. Staff from the Scottish Police College are currently in Sri Lanka on a three week visit. Their taxpayer-funded ‘aid’ work is apparently focusing on ‘community policing, ethical leadership and organisational management’. Their approach seems at odds with a police force dressed in khaki uniforms, some carrying kalashnikovs, and where the police stations in Tamil towns look more like garrisons. A Tamil Civil Society Forum member told me that “For us Tamils, police and army are in the same category. They both all speak Sinhalese [the language of the majority population]. They were the ones who started the harassment and beatings in our youth. We have not seen any improvement. When the Sinhalese police come to Tamil areas they are different people.”

'War hero' day

The fear of a Tamil uprising is something that resonates powerfully among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and generates strong support for the armed forces. The last president, Rajapaksa, embodied this anti-Tamil sentiment as he vanquished the Tigers and pushed Sinhalese settlers onto Tamil land. Although his personal corruption may have cost him the presidency, he still haunts the political landscape. The new president promised to hold a more respectful Remembrance Day, instead of Rajapaksa’s triumphalist annual War Heroes parades, on May 19. But in the end the difference was mere semantics, as the event looked the same as previous years. “Rajapaksa celebrated May 19 as ‘war victory’ day. These new people have to have an international image to say they are not Rajapaksas, that they are different and commemorate all the minorities,” said Kusal Perera, a Sinhalese journalist, “So what they did was they branded this ‘war victory day’ with a different label, to say ‘war heroes remembrance day’. But the celebrations were exactly what Rajapaksa did. Huge military parades. This is a way of keeping the Sinhala supremacist ideology going for decades to come. All these things are in the package with a different brand name called ‘remembrance day’. But if you go to the ministry of defence website the lingo is different and its still called ‘war hero’ day. It’s like selling the local Arrack with a black label.”