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'Reconciliation is not happening in Sri Lanka, and the problem isn't a question of time'
Three years since the armed conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended, the Tamil speaking areas remain gripped by repression, ethnic tension and widespread suffering, rather than emergent reconciliation and peace - and the problem is not a question of time.
The war itself ended in a cataclysm of violence in which, according to a UN expert panel’s report, over 40,000 Tamil civilians were massacred, largely by government shelling of safe zones and hospitals. The period after the war’s end in May 2009 saw the internment of hundreds of thousands of shell-shocked civilian survivors in squalid camps (run by Sri Lanka’s ethnically pure Sinhala military), from which reports of deprivation, abductions, torture and rape were persistently emerging. Although after intense international pressure the camps were eventually closed, large numbers of Tamils are still prevented from resettling.
It is against this recent history, quite apart from the decades of ethno-political strife and quarter century of war, that today, ‘reconciliation’ is being discussed as a necessary step towards a lasting peace. So it is unsurprising that the question of how to achieve reconciliation or, more importantly, what exactly it entails, has only become more contentious.
Whilst the Tamils, eminent human rights organisations and leading democracies have called for accountability for the horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity, alleged to have been committed by both sides, as the first step towards meaningful reconciliation, Sri Lanka dismisses such calls as 'neo-colonialism'. Instead the Colombo government has tried to enforce its own brand of reconciliation – one that denies the military’s slaughter of large numbers of Tamil civilians, refuses to meaningfully address the Tamil people's long-standing political grievances, and seeks to ruthlessly impose its own idea of what ‘national’ identity should be.
Sri Lanka’s understanding of reconciliation
Even a cursory look at resolved past conflicts and successful efforts at reconciliation underlines how mutual recognition, acceptance and tolerance of communities once seen as the enemy is fundamental. However, Sri Lanka's vision of reconciliation is not constructed on this model. Instead, denying the very existence of an ethnic crisis on the island, Sri Lanka purports the problem to simply be one of ‘terrorism’. Within this framework, having now claimed victory over the LTTE, Sri Lanka asserts that given time and space reconciliation will naturally follow, and any voices of dissent are remnants of the original ‘problem’, that of ‘terrorism’.
In Sri Lanka, reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamils is seen as one of all people adopting a ‘Sri Lankan' identity. In principle, this need not be problematic as an inclusive identity of equals fosters mutual tolerance and a celebration of differences. However, the inherent flaw – and, incidentally, the raison d’être for the Tamil people’s original call for autonomy soon after independence from Britain – is that the 'Sri Lankan' identity is essentially a Sinhala Buddhist one.
Whilst the government purports that Tamils, and those of the island’s minority communities, are welcome into and belong within an overarching ‘Sri Lankan’ identity, this welcome is in fact offered on the premise that a Sinhala Buddhist identity is adopted, feigned, or at the very least, its hegemony over the island is willingly accepted. That such an identity should be seen as the righteous and natural state of the island has long been enshrined within the country’s constitution and its numerous amendments, including the Sinhala Only Act and the state’s explicit duty to ‘protect and foster’ Buddhism, giving it the ‘foremost place’ on the island.
Thus enforced through parliament, the ideology of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is exalted and effectively indoctrinated through the institutionalised Sinhala Buddhist text, the Mahavamsa. Taught to school children from an early age, the Mahavamsa’s claims of Sinhala Buddhism’s primordial ownership over the island is a theme that has run through the discriminatory and persecutory rhetoric of successive Sinhala governments fuelling the race riots, pogroms, persecution and genocide of the Tamils.
It is not only Sri Lanka’s refusal to accept the Tamil identity as a rightful and equal part of the island that discredits its claim of seeking ‘reconciliation’, but that any assertion of the legitimate, long-standing grievances of the Tamil people, or their desire for self-determination as a means to escape Sinhala Buddhist domination, is denounced as an inherent threat to the majority and vilified as 'terrorist ideology'. Even the dominant Tamil political coalition in the island, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), despite its extensive democratic mandate within the Tamil areas as seen in the 2010 elections,has been accused by the government of propagating ‘extremism’, in calling for autonomy.
The only Tamils considered acceptable to the Sri Lankan government are those that accept Sinhala Buddhism’s dominance on the island – a state of perpetual submission and oppression that has never been accepted by the overwhelming majority. Tamils who endorse accountability, greater autonomy, or self-determination are condemned as ‘war-mongering’, ‘radical’, ‘seeking revenge’ or as part of a Western ‘conspiracy’.
The Sri Lankan government’s delegation to the 19th session of the UN Humans Rights Council this month, illustrated the state’s façade of reconciliation. Whilst representatives of the TNA said they felt compelled to forego the event fearing reprisals on their return, the government’s delegation included an unelected Tamil mayor and a dubiously elected Tamil paramilitary leader (and now minister) who is indicted in the government’s own investigatory report into the final stages of the armed conflict. This self-selected pool of ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ is used to claim that ‘Sri Lankans’ have no appetite for accountability, and would under no circumstances accept international intervention to secure an independent process, viewing such measures as neo-colonialism. Yet once again, whilst this may resonate with ‘Sri Lankans’, for the Tamils this is far from the truth.
Since 2009, the Tamil people have consistently called for an independent, international investigation into the credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as the only means of securing accountability. From the TNA, youth activists and civil society groups on the ground, to activists within the diaspora (criminalised by senior government ministers as the ‘LTTE rump’) there has been unanimous consensus. Sri Lanka cannot be left to investigate itself.
Fundamentally, crimes of such appalling gravity warrant an adequate investigation in and of themselves. Victims’ families and survivors have a right to justice. Knowing that those who perpetrate crimes will be held to account and that the rule of law holds (let alone questions of reparation or the sense of closure) are basic steps that allow a community, or nation, to take stock, grieve and renew. This is not a 'Western' concept of justice, or a 'Western' idea of morality, but a universal notion inherent to humanity. Looking forward, if Sri Lanka is serious about ceasing the relentless ethnic repression, there has to be meaningful accounting for the past.
The government's rhetoric about reconciliation thus belies a now relentless project to impose a Sinhala Buddhist identity throughout Tamil areas. Tamil place names are replaced with Sinhala ones; the national anthem is prohibited from being sung in Tamil, and Hindu and Christian places of worship remain destroyed across the Tamil areas, as Buddhist stupas are constructed. All the while, militarised repression seeks to stifle and violently stamp out any Tamil dissent and protest.
Whilst Tamils are prevented from resettling, the government is building militarised Sinhala settlements over their homes, to accommodate the increased deployment of the military, (almost exclusively Sinhala) to the North-East. At a time when the military should be scaled down, the government has announced increased military expenditure, and proposed grants for military personnel who extend their family by having a third child. Meanwhile, the government’s expropriation bill, changes to land registry and ownership, and dual citizenship amendments, disenfranchise and alienate the large swathes of Tamils who fled during the 80s and 90s – a diaspora that has and continues to be the backbone of the economic development and capital in the North-East.
Whilst proclaiming to potential investors and tour operators that ‘peace’ now prevails in Sri Lanka, the government has cracked down on press freedoms, increased political interference within the judiciary and imposed a militarised governance on Tamil areas, where aid agencies, foreign reporters and independent observers are unable to operate without close government supervision. In short, for the Tamils, the question is not one of reconciliation, but the absence of basic freedoms.
The effect of decades of pogroms and persecution of the Tamils - through the displacement, fleeing as refugees, seeking exile, disappearances and deaths - is that the very demographics of the island have now changed. The targeted, systematic massacre of the Vanni population, together with the subsequent arbitrary arrest and systematic rape of young Tamil men and women in the immediate aftermath, ensures that the full extent of demographic changes are yet to be seen. To the Tamils, the island’s changing demography is not an unfortunate after-effect, but an aim that spurred the structural genocide that continues to unfold.
It is an extensively documented, if often forgotten, fact that the Tamil demands for autonomy – in the form of federalism - first appeared as a direct result of the relentless ‘Sinhalisation’ of the then post-independence state of Ceylon. When these calls, supported by mass demonstrations through the sixties and seventies, were met with anger and state-backed rioting, Tamils united behind a call for an independent statehood. The call received overwhelming popular endorsement in the 1976 elections when the TNA’s predecessor, the TULF, swept the polls - a full six years before Tamil militants began an armed struggle.
It is this popular desire, shared by peoples in other parts of the world, such as in Scotland and Quebec, that is denounced by the Sri Lankan state and its majoritarian supporters as ‘terrorist ideology,’ ‘extremism’, ‘fascism’, and so on. Sri Lanka’s sixth amendment to the constitution enshrines in law the criminalisation of Tamil calls for independence. That the TNA has ‘moderated’ its stance to ask for autonomy, rather than independence, has made no difference.
Calls by the international community – including those like the US, India and European Union who supported Sri Lanka’s military campaign against the LTTE - for a political solution involving talks with the TNA and power-sharing with the Tamils have been met repeatedly by histrionic denunciations for supporting ‘separatism’ and ‘terrorism’.
The cynicism behind the rhetoric of reconciliation adopted by the government and its supporters is underlined by its evolving responses to accusation of mass atrocities by its armed forces – arguably the most serious charge citizens can level against the state. From the outset it reacted with unrestrained anger and indignation.
Beyond the government's own predictable reaction to the atrocities, what is perhaps most striking is that this reaction is almost unanimously shared by the wider Sinhala polity, mainstream press, and especially, the majority of the Sinhalese people.
The well supported reports, including one from the UN Panel of Experts, of over 40,000 Tamils (supposedly fellow citizens) being killed, have been met with the same dismissal, outrage and indignation as that of the government. The government’s claims of ‘neo-colonial’ bullying are lauded, whilst the TNA, other Tamil critics, and the few Sinhala critics, are denounced as ‘traitors’ and threats to national security. In short, the government enjoys the unqualified support of the Sinhala majority on the issue of accountability for atrocities against Tamils.
Thus, even without the prevailing climate of militarised repression, replete with abductions, ‘disappearances’ and murders of critics, the wholesale rejection and criminalisation of the aspirations of an entire nation ensures that the frank and open dialogue required for reconciliation cannot take place in Sri Lanka.
Breaking the cycle
Today in Sri Lanka, in the name of reconciliation, an escalation of ethnic polarisation is unfolding, as the state strives to impose a Sinhala Buddhist hegemony over the Tamil areas.
The discrimination, persecution and genocide of the Tamil nation by the Sri Lankan state, supported and endorsed by the Sinhala majority, has been on-going for over seven decades – before, during and after the armed conflict. So too, has been Tamil resistance to this oppression.
Even after the end of the war, and in spite of state intimidation and militarised repression, the Tamils continue to support political parties and civil society groups, including resurging youth activism, that are torch-bearers for self-determination and independence. The TNA’s victory in last year’s polls is an irrefutable collective statement by the Tamil people that white-washing the past with promises of ‘development’ is no substitute for accountability, a meaningful addressing of legitimate grievances, and a just peace.
The events of the Arab Spring amply demonstrate that when people are faced with perpetual persecution by the state, their resistance is inevitable. When legitimate grievances and protests are met with violent state terror, then rebellion eventually follows. This is what happened thirty years ago in Sri Lanka, and it is a history poised to replay today. It is after all not merely past injustice that fuels the Tamil people’s demand for accountability and a lasting political solution, but that the grievances, which spurred resistance, are being added to day by day.
The Tamil call for an independent statehood stemmed from a very basic need for security against genocide. For many, and including the next generation of Tamil youth activists, the events of 2009 consolidated this need. The fact that the genocide continues to unfold today, only serves to vindicate it. The notion that today’s perpetrators can be relied upon to be tomorrow’s protectors is viewed with arguable cynicism and distrust, no more so than by the Tamil youth, looking to the future.
Sri Lanka’s rhetoric of ‘reconciliation’ and ensuing lasting peace could not be further from reality.