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A simmering crisis

Illustration: Keera Ratnam

On Sunday afternoon, Sri Lankan police shot dead a Tamil man in Jaffna. Though the facts around the killing are still not clear, with reports he may have been involved in illegal sand mining, what is known for certain is that Yogarasa Thines was completely unarmed. The police decision to gun him down, not only seems wholly disproportionate, but follows a sadly well-established pattern of Sri Lankan state violence against Tamil civilians, amidst a culture of impunity.

The frustration at the killing of yet another Tamil boiled over the following day, as locals burnt tyres, blocked roads and damaged a police post in demonstrations. Given Sri Lanka’s long history of impunity and the total lack of accountability for the countless Tamils who have been killed by the state, the outrage at another killing is not an unusual response. Tamils feel the state will once again attempt to sweep this act of violence under the carpet, in a flurry of broken promises, endless bureaucracy and hollow investigations, like it has done with so many before it. The Tamil people are, justifiably, angry.  

This killing echoes back to the murder of two Jaffna University students last year, also gunned down by Sri Lankan police in October. Despite widespread protests and arrests being made, that case continues to drag on without an end in sight. Whilst the reported arrest of two police officers on Monday for the killing of Mr Thines is a welcome sign, Colombo cannot stall proceedings there, as it has done on numerous occasions before. A full-scale inquiry into the killing must be swiftly carried out and those responsible prosecuted.

However, the government’s response to the protests – beefing up security presence by deploying the infamous Special Task Force across the region - sends worrying signals. Instead of addressing legitimate Tamil concerns around state violence, it seems as if the state is poised to respond with an increased security clampdown. This is the wrong approach to take. Far from quelling the palpable frustrations across the North-East, it instead heightens fears of a cover-up and increases the militarisation and intimidation of the Tamil homeland.

This is not new to the North-East. Whilst the South too has suffered from the excesses of Sri Lanka’s militarisation, there is an inescapable difference. The sheer extent of the violence, with tens of thousands of Tamils killed or unaccounted for, alongside an unwillingness to seek accountability for those crimes, reveals a stark disparity in both scale and context. All whilst the very same soldiers that Tamils have witnessed commit horrific acts of violence, continue to occupy their homeland in massive numbers. The lack of outrage from the Sinhala press, Southern civil society and the general public towards Tamil deaths – including the killing of Mr Thines – is also telling. Tamils on the island remain unequal, even in death.

It has now been well over two years since this government came in to power. Despite repeated reassurances to the international community of a profound transformation towards ‘good governance’, a lack of tangible action in this case will only add further evidence that impunity still reigns. Sri Lanka must not be allowed to let this continue. If justice is not served, anger and discontent across the North-East will continue to rise, as it has done with many other issues that affect the life of Tamils over the past two years. As has been demonstrated several times over the island’s bloody history, brute force will not quash Tamil voices for justice. Indeed, despite unfathomable losses, the Tamil voice has only grown louder.

It was a history of violence, insecurity and disenfranchisement that fuelled the decades long ethnic conflict. That reality has not changed. The state’s actions in the days to come will make amply clear whether it intends on defusing or exacerbating the simmering crisis on the island.

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