Ten years since the end of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka remains divided. Far from the promise of stability and unity, the fractures that have plagued the country since independence, continue to define the relationships within the island. In the North-East, each year gone has seen Tamils become more vocal in their calls demanding justice for the genocide committed against them, return of land from the military and the right to self-determination. Across the island the bombings by Islamist extremists on Easter Sunday and the subsequent anti-Muslim violence by Sinhala mobs have laid bare wider ethnic tensions. Sri Lanka has failed to become what the international community expected it would, when the war ended ten years ago - a stable, peaceful, pluralist state founded on liberal, democratic principles. The end of the armed Tamil resistance movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - touted by liberal orthodoxy to be the answer to the island’s ills - did not lead Sri Lanka down the path of reform. To the Tamils this is unsurprising. The failure to ‘fix’ Sri Lanka begins with the failure to acknowledge the toxic Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy in its core.
Far from using the end of conflict as an opportunity to address the grievances that led to it, Sri Lankan leaders and military used the absence of the LTTE as an opportunity to strengthen Sinhala Buddhist hegemony and tighten its stranglehold on the Tamil people. The mass killings of Tamils by the military during wartime were followed by mass incarceration, systemic rape and torture of Tamils by the security forces even after ‘peace’ was declared. Tamils released from military run camps, returned home to find the very same soldiers deployed across the North-East in numbers that resemble a military occupation. Whilst families demonstrated for their homes and land to be returned, new military camps, Buddhist viharas and state sponsored Sinhala settlements have swept across the North-East. Pledges made in international arenas have been consistently quashed by the unanimous rejection of key Tamil demands by the entirety of Sri Lankan leadership: no international inquiry, no military out of the North-East and no federal Tamil state. The result of this is that ten years later, the Tamil people feel no more part of Sri Lanka than they did before 2009. The military is not felt to be their military, the flag is not their flag.
Since independence, Sri Lanka’s leaders have responded to any perceived threat to its Sinhala Buddhist identity with heightened oppression, from draconian laws, to direct violence by the security forces, paramilitaries and state sponsored mobs. The current government is no exception, responding to the Easter Sunday bomb attacks by conducting far-reaching search operations across the island, banning the burqa and niqab and allowing anti-Muslim violence by Sinhala mobs, in which there is mounting evidence of military collusion. The president and military were swift to blame the bombings on the relaxing of war-time security measures, and even on the UN inquiry on accountability for mass atrocities. This could not be further from the truth. It is instead the very nature of the Sri Lankan state, which remains highly militarised, habitually fosters violence between ethnic groups, and ensures total impunity for its armed forces, that makes it fertile ground for perpetual violence.
These endemic cycles of violence and the state’s entrenched role in fuelling ethnic tensions in order protect Sinhala Buddhism’s primacy, cannot be allowed to continue. As Sri Lanka goes through yet another crisis, the government’s routine call for the need for heightened securitisation and relaxing of human rights scrutiny must not be heeded. Indeed the country’s current pervasive militarisation, use of torture and draconian anti-terror laws failed to stop the attacks. More of the same will not prevent future ones. Now should be the time for greater scrutiny, not less. A complete structural rethink of the very nature of the state is needed, with accountability and justice for mass atrocities at its core - and Sri Lanka must be dragged through it. It is beyond doubt the international community’s approach of encouraging incremental reforms has failed to deliver on its promise. The next ten years cannot be more of the same. The past decade has made clear Sri Lankan polity and the state at large will not deliver structural change from within. It must instead be forced to act from outside through time bound measures linked to firm punitive measures.
As Tamils, in the homeland and across the world, come together tomorrow to remember the genocide that took place in Mullivaikkaal, the nation’s loss remains raw. Adding to the visceral horror at the slaughter which took place, was unspeakable sorrow at the destruction of the de facto state of Tamil Eelam and the defeat of the Tamil armed resistance movement. Such was the magnitude of this loss that critics predicted it marked the end of Tamil nationalism. Yet as the nation’s journey over the past ten years illustrates, 2009 was not the end. It was the next chapter in seven decades of Tamil resistance to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. From the diaspora protests that brought international capitals to a standstill; to the defiance of protesting mothers in the homeland; and to the pan-nation efforts which led to the UN report into mass atrocities in Sri Lanka, the Tamil nation did not implode in grief. It renewed its resolve, joined by a new wave of activists, bourne out of witnessing the massacre that unfolded. Tomorrow, as the nation - replenished once again by a new generation forged from the fight for justice for 2009 - stands ready to write the next chapter in this protracted struggle, the need to safeguard it from the ongoing violence of the Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy that is Sri Lanka remains its goal. The Tamil nation’s answer to this remains unwavering - justice for genocide, demilitarisation of the Tamil homeland, and ensuring the Tamil right to self-determination.