Seven years after the armed conflict ended in May 2009 and the height of Tamil genocide by the Sri Lankan state, Tamils this year mark May 18th with the weight of a UN report behind them. Detailing the extent and sheer horror of the atrocities committed, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, targeting of hospitals, sexual violence, torture and the extrajudicial killing of LTTE cadres, the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka report validates the visceral outcry of the Tamil nation which blockaded diasporic capitals, deploring the ensuing massacre and demanding international intervention, as well as validating the call for justice that has emanated from the diaspora and the North-East ever since. Seven years on however, meaningful change in the circumstances that led to the armed conflict, and the tangible prospect of true justice continues to elude the Tamil people.
Illustration by Keera Ratnam May 18 is etched deep into the conscience of the Tamil nation. On this day Eelam Tamils across the world remember the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians and combatants that were killed in Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. On this day the nation stands together, mourning the lives lost and marking the end of the armed movement - the most significant chapter of the Tamil resistance struggle till then. Yet on this day, while Tamils mourn, the Sinhala south celebrates. The defeat of 'terrorism' by its armed forces who committed mass atrocities against the Tamil people, and the seeming victory of Sinhala nationalism over Tamil nationalism, is marked by jubilation. It is a day in which the divisions on the island are laid bare, even more than usual. Six years on, the evidence of mass atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan state is conclusive, with reports, including by the UN, finding these crimes occurred. This is expected to be reconfirmed by the OISL in September, when it is due to present the findings of its investigation.
The UN Human Rights Council’s decision to give the new government 6 months to cooperate with the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), in view of gathering more information, and defer the publishing of the UN inquiry into mass atrocities till September, has been met with mixed reactions. Whilst Colombo celebrates what it sees as a diplomatic coup, human rights groups have cautiously welcomed the prospect that more evidence can be found. However, Tamil victims, witnesses and campaigners for justice have expressed deep disappointment that justice, denied to them for so long, is delayed once again. Describing it as a “difficult decision”, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s acknowledged the inevitable disappointment of witnesses, but said the decision was based on the promise of “broad cooperation” by the new government and the prospect of “a stronger and more comprehensive report”. Mr Zeid’s unequivocal statement that the deferment was “for one time only” and his personal commitment to ensure its release at the Council’s 30th session is welcome. However, despite the new government’s very basic promises (outlined in the foreign minister’s letter to Mr Zeid), the Tamil people’s deep scepticism that it will deliver on them remains palpable - nowhere more so than in the North-East.
The shock defeat of incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections has given rise, both internationally and in the island, to cautious optimism of a new era of governance that would break from the violent authoritarianism and cronyism of the past decade. Building his campaign around a pledge to end corruption, uphold the rule of law, ensure press freedom and abolish the executive presidency, the unlikely victor, Maithiripala Sirisena, successfully drew the support of a disparate array of opposition parties, including the United National Party (UNP), General Sarath Fonseka's party, the JVP and the JHU, as well as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC). Ongoing cross-overs from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have now given him the necessary parliamentary majority to make good on his pledges.
In less than a month’s time, Sri Lanka will choose a president. In the south of the island the poll is one of the most anticipated in the country’s recent history, with the common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, and his extensive coalition, encompassing the right to the left of Sinhala politicos, widely seen to be a serious challenger to incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Maithripala’s defection from the SLFP led government, and pledge to abolish the executive presidency and tackle corruption, is being seen by many in the South as an opportunity to effect change on the island and to end Rajapaksa’s reign, which has been characterised by corruption, repression of freedom of expression, nepotism, and an autocratic, despotic leadership style.
Twenty-five years ago today, the Tamil nation’s day of remembrance - Maaveerar Naal, was first commemorated at an event in the Vanni. Today, the commemoration of the nation’s fallen heroes has spread across the world, taken by those who were forced to flee their homeland in the North-East. This year also marks a significant anniversary of remembrance in global history, the hundredth anniversary of the start of the first world war. Over 16 million people died during four years of intense warfare, which led to a further world war and millions more deaths. Silence, a candle and a flower - a gloriosa lily and a poppy, were used in an act of remembrance that is understood across nations and across generations. The legacy of those who gave their all for their nation binds a people beyond political differences. It reverberates through history and is honoured and revered as the ultimate sacrifice.
The Sri Lankan government’s announcement of restrictions on foreign passport holders travelling to the North is a brazen and calculated attempt to obstruct evidence collection for the UN inquiry into mass atrocities, ahead of its deadline this week. Within a climate of open intimidation of Tamil victims, the restriction seeks to close off the North-East to visiting international officials, who were one of the few channels available to effectively smuggle evidence out, as well as to serve as a punishment to the Tamil people for their demand for accountability and justice for the mass killing...
The eyes of the world were on Scotland last week, as the Scottish people voted in a historic referendum on independence. The majority of Scots (55%) chose to keep their homeland as part of the United Kingdom with the promise of more devolved powers, turning down the opportunity to secede. Whilst the outcome has, quite rightly, been embraced by all as the collective will of the Scottish people, the process inspired and re-energised nations elsewhere struggling for independence. That the question of independence was freely expressed, debated and decided through a democratic process was observed with a feeling of hope and bittersweet envy by, amongst others, Catalans, Kurds, Kashmiris, Balochs, West Papuans and Eelam Tamils - whose own aspirations are denied, even criminalised and violently suppressed.
The start of the UN Human Rights Council's 27th session this week saw the welcome reaffirmation of resolve to pursue accountability for mass atrocities in Sri Lanka through a UN inquiry from the newly appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al-Hussein and the US and UK missions. Amid the crises unfolding in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, the High Commissioner's pointed statement highlighting the importance he places on the OHCHR Investigation into Sri Lanka (OISL) is a significant pledge to fulfill the commendable legacy of his predecessor, Navi Pillay. Equally resolved however was Sri Lanka in its determination to oppose it. Reiterating its categorical rejection of the inquiry, Sri Lanka renewed its refusal to cooperate with UN investigators. Its seemingly desperate attempts to block the functioning of the inquiry, only serve to vindicate the basis on which member states led and supported the resolution in March mandating an international inquiry – Sri Lanka will not deliver accountability and justice for the deaths of over 70,000 Tamils during the final stages of the armed conflict itself.