Fear and loathing in the Eastern elections

The results from the recently held Eastern provincial council elections have been brandished by Sri Lanka as a sign of wavering Tamil demand for self rule, and more perversely, that Tamils are now content with Sri Lanka’s rule. However, rather than signal a weakening of Tamil aspirations, the elections clearly revealed the true nature of the Sinhala state’s governance in the Tamil homeland; a mixture of violence, threats, intimidation and colonisation. The elections were a far cry from the free and fair expression of Tamil sentiments that they were trumped up to be. Instead, as became clear through the campaign, they were marked by ongoing incidents of violence against candidates and voters with hundreds of government thugs dispatched to the Tamil homeland for the purpose. The well documented and choking colonisation of the East also served its purpose – providing a reliable Sinhala vote base for Rajapakse’s UPFA. The brazenness of the intimidation during the campaign even prompted R. Sampanthan, the infamously timid leader of the TNA, to appeal to President Rajapaksa for “free and fair” elections to be allowed to take place. The appeal predictably failed and Sampanthan has recently released a statement slamming the “UPFA campaign of terror” and stating that it "violated all norms of democracy and good governance". The purpose of the Sinhala state’s violent electoral campaign was very clear. Tamil voters were warned of “unpleasant consequences” if they opposed the UPFA and told in no uncertain terms that they voted for the TNA at their own risk.

Indian proscriptions and Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis: a policy of failure

The intemperate attacks against the Tamil Diaspora that accompanied India’s predictable decision to re-proscribe the LTTE earlier this month reflects more than anything the dismal failure of India’s attempts to shape a political solution to the island’s ongoing and escalating ethnic conflict. Indian approaches to the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka have long been driven by the belief that the LTTE and particularly its senior leadership remained the singular obstacles to an equitable political solution to the conflict. To this end the Indian political and military establishment provided unqualified support for Sri Lanka’s military efforts to crush the Tamil struggle. However, three years after the end of the war and the military destruction of the LTTE, amidst Sri Lanka’s horrifying slaughter of Tamil civilians, the prospects of a political solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict are by all accounts remote.

All the action in Sri Lanka’s Action Plan

When Prof. G. L Pieris, Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister, meets Mrs. Clinton, US Secretary of State tomorrow, he will have in his hand a piece of paper. The ‘Action Plan’ he will present was hastily put together in an attempt to deflect growing international criticism of Sri Lanka’s treatment of the Tamil people. However, the title of the document is misleading. The ‘Action Plan’ is not actually a blue print for forthcoming action. Instead, and as Sri Lanka’s past record of promised ‘action’ on the Tamil question indicates, all the ‘action’ in the ‘Action Plan’ will be done with its presentation. In other words Sri Lanka’s ‘Action Plan’ to resolve the Tamil issue is simply to present the ‘Action Plan’ and then carry on much the same as before.

If Sri Lanka really could be good, then why has it been so bad?

As Sri Lanka struggles to fend off a critical resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission, international pressure on Sri Lanka is coalescing on three key demands. International actors are demanding that Sri Lanka implements reforms to usher in good governance, credibly investigates and prosecutes those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity and finally meets Tamil demands for meaningful self government. While the substance of these demands is entirely reasonable and plausible, the presumption that Sri Lanka might somehow meet these expectations is not. For if Sri Lanka really was capable of such enlightened behaviour then why has its post independence history been one of relentlessly escalating ethnic antagonism and brutality, culminating in the bloodbath of May 2009? What explains the ongoing militarised repression of the Tamil speaking regions? The very need for such overt international insistence on measures that are patently necessary reveals precisely why all such pressure is futile.

Terror on cue

Sri Lankan security forces have an overbearing presence in many Tamil-speaking areas where 'grease devils' - night prowlers - are terrorising villages. Until very recently, the term ‘grease devil’ had not appeared in international reportage on Sri Lanka. However in the past few weeks it has been associated with an epidemic of terrifying attacks and attempted attacks by night prowlers on women, largely in Tamil-speaking areas. Wearing masks or face paint, they either break into female-only houses and residences, or loiter in areas frequented by women. The incidents have not only caused panic amongst residents in Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil villages (mainly, but not exclusively), but also anger - which has been directed, tellingly, at the security forces who are seen to be protecting the prowlers. Sri Lanka has been making much of supposed local superstitions. But people are terrorised by the attacks themselves, not paranormal readings of the perpetrators. Indeed, they have often chased after - and sometimes apprehended - the prowlers when they encounter them. It is no coincidence the wave of attacks comes as Sri Lanka’s authorities are under international pressure to repeal draconian Emergency Regulations and reduce the overbearing military presence in the war-shattered Tamil areas. In short, the ‘grease devil’ phenomenon has emerged as an all too convenient justification for Sri Lanka’s security establishment to continue its massive deployment in Tamil areas.

Revealing Remarks

Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Ashok K. Kantha’s address to mark his country’s 65th independence anniversary was starkly at odds with international opinion, disconnected from political developments at home, and elided the enduring humanitarian and ethnopolitical crises in Sri Lanka.

Sinhala opposition to accountability for Tamil suffering

The report by the UN expert panel on the final months of Sri Lanka’s war sets out a harrowing account of government forces’ conduct. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were subject to targeted mass bombardment, starvation and denial of medical assistance, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties and widespread suffering. Extracts of the UN report leaked to the Sri Lankan press have, quite rightly, caused shock and prompted press coverage and commentary across the world along with renewed calls for an independent, international investigation. In Sri Lanka, however, reaction has, predictably, been quite different: the report by respected international experts has been met with denial, dismissal and defiance by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Crucially, moreover, this categorical rejection and indignation is echoed across the Sinhala polity. Instead of supporting international calls for a proper investigation and the prosecution of those responsible for mass atrocities against what are – supposedly – fellow citizens Sri Lanka’s mainstream media, commentators and, now, the main opposition parties have instead rallied to defend the regime and its conduct of the war. (The only exception, also predictably, is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil political party, which has welcomed the report and its recommendations.) The Sinhala nation has effectively closed ranks to defend its government and armed forces. This collective refusal to even countenance investigation of the state’s war crimes not only vindicates the call for an international inquiry, it also highlights the fundamental and enduring ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.

Extraordinarily Perverse

Canada’s decision to deport the 74-year old widow of assassinated Tamil parliamentarian Joseph Parajasingham on the grounds she is a member “by association” of the Liberation Tigers exemplifies the Kafkaesque logics of the country’s asylum policy as implemented by its Immigration and Refugee Board. In Canada, as in many Western states, asylum and immigration policy has long been controversial and marked by heated political and public debates. These have intensified amid the insecurities since the global financial crisis, and border agencies in many Western states are under intense pressure to stem immigration – and not just from developing countries. However some of the recent decisions made, and the logics put forward for these, by the IRB stand out as especially perverse.

Why is it perplexing?

Two months after what has been described as Sri Lanka’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami, the lives of those in the most affected districts of Batticoloa, Amparai and Trincomalee remain devastated. The state’s much hyped rhetoric of aid has not materialized into tangible relief. Quite the reverse. In a predictable repeat of the post-tsunami situation, the state’s efforts to hamper flood relief for Tamil areas are part of a wider determination to block re-development there.

Representing an oppressed nation

Against the many crises the Tamil people in Sri Lanka face today, perhaps the most grievous is lack of effective representation. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) continues to claim, implicitly and explicitly, the role of chief advocate, but in practice has instead left it to other Tamil and international actors, including those in the Diaspora, to articulate the Tamils’ urgent needs and difficulties. The TNA’s reluctance to vigorously articulate Tamil grievances on a range of self-evident contemporary issues inevitably raises serious questions regarding their ability, indeed their willingness, to accurately and effectively represent the Tamil nation’s interests and aspirations in any wider discussion on a political settlement.