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Unequal in death

The shooting of unarmed protesters by a state’s military, as took place in Weliweriya this week, is horrific. The profound perversity of a state turning its military apparatus on the people it purports to protect is universally felt. The Tiananmen Square massacre, Bloody Sunday and even Egypt today, are cases in point. The insurmountable inequity of force and the ensuing bloodshed of the unarmed protesters form a chilling reminder of a state’s simmering potential to abuse its monopoly on violence. The outrage and shock that has reverberated through Sri Lanka’s south following the Weliweriya incident is thus well placed. Yet as with the killings of other dissenting individuals, this tragedy highlights the intractable fallacy of an equal or inclusive ‘Sri Lankan identity’. In Sri Lanka, even death is no equaliser. The killing of a dissenter is defined by ethno-political identity, both that of the individual and their demands.

The difference is inescapable. The government response within twenty-four hours of the military killing one Sinhala protester has been immeasurably more than that to the military’s massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils, in over four years. Far from evidence of a governmental epiphany on human rights, the swift response stems from a desire to appease the outraged Sinhala majority, which drives power on the island. Thus whilst the inherent independence of any government appointed or military probe is no better in this case, than to an internal inquiry investigating military actions against Tamils, the desire to appease an enraged Sinhala electorate and press, may still lead to prosecutions and resignations. The incident acts as a tragic reminder to the Sinhala people of the excesses of Rajapaksa’s rule: militarisation now so excessive and extensive that it has come to take its toll on all ethnicities. However, for the Tamils the military’s unrestrained violence and impunity is not confined to the Rajapaksa regime. In word or deed previous governments have proved no better. Since the time of Sri Lanka’s independence, actions by the state’s security forces against non-violent Tamil dissent have never prompted investigation or accountability, including by the opposition, UNP. Indeed, even now the UNP has not openly acknowledged the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan military in 2009 nor endorsed the call for an international, independent investigation.

Most telling of all however, is the discrepancy in response from the Sinhala press, legal voices, general public and the protesters. Within days, the shock, anger and rising clamour for justice are palpable. By contrast there is no past or present evidence of a similar response to any killing of Tamils by the military. Desensitisation is no doubt partly at play: the military’s attacks on Tamils have been so consistent, repetitive, and persistent, that it is hardly ‘news’ at all (although, it is notable that large swathes of the Sri Lankan press and public still do not even acknowledge that such atrocities have taken place). Many international and Tamil observers are equally afflicted by desensitisation. Indeed even those elected to represent the will of the Tamil people, the TNA, who pursue with immense vigour injustice affecting Sri Lanka and will no doubt pursue the Weliweriya incident equally so, have been only lukewarm at calling for an international investigation into the end of the armed conflict. This numbed apathy in the face of on-going impunity for the killing of Tamils, reveals an appalling complacency towards what is effectively the devaluation of Tamil life. Crucially, the failure to actively acknowledge and reflect the difference in the sheer scale of atrocities affecting the two ethnicities, undermines any constructive assessment of intent of the crimes.

As the candid comments of the Weliweriya protesters illustrate however, the overwhelming sentiment is not desensitisation, but incredulous indignation that the military could do this to them - those who demand water, not independence, and those who are Sinhalese, not Tamil. This indignation of the Sinhala nation belies a disturbing reasoning that Tamils, simply by virtue of their ethnic (and by extension ethno-political) identity are from the offset considered ‘not completely innocent’, or guilty. Thus, to be a Tamil, makes you an understandable target of the state, and to be a Tamil who calls for the nation’s right to self-determination, makes you a legitimate one. Most disturbingly of all, Tamil armed resistance - the eventual result of decades of oppression and the military’s quashing of non-violent Tamil protest - is accepted as a justification for the Sri Lankan state’s collective punishment and criminalisation of the Tamil nation. Hence the military occupation of the North-East is still accepted as necessary, whilst the militarisation of Weliweriya is abhorred; and the Weliweriya attack prompts immediate calls for accountability, whilst four years on and despite the mounting body of irrefutable evidence, an international inquiry into the end of the war examining both sides is still overwhelmingly rejected by the Sinhala nation. Without any tangible action or shift on such fundamental issues of truth, justice and accountability, sympathy or statements of 'sorry' by a few well-meaning Sinhala people are rendered facile. The inequity of Tamil death continues.