After yet another week of political turmoil in Sri Lanka, with the president accused of overriding the constitution and appointing a man the Supreme Court found personally participated in torture as the head of police, one might have imagined the authoritarian path the regime is trudging down was clear to all. Not so in Washington. One of the US State Department’s most senior officials flew into the island last week and declared that, despite the ramping up of repression, they would be looking to send yet another vessel to the Sri Lankan navy. The move sends a troubling message across the island and around the world. At a time when US foreign policy is coming under intense scrutiny, it seems as if authoritarianism is being rewarded in Sri Lanka once more.
Recent months have seen India rapidly expand its footprint in Sri Lanka. Under the presidency of Ranil Wickremesinghe, a series of deals have reportedly been agreed, binding the two economically closer than they have been in decades. From New Delhi, things may look comfortable across the Palk Strait. But it would be hasty to think so. If it is a long-term relationship with a stable partner that India is seeking, it will not be found in Colombo where authoritarianism is growing and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism continues to underpin the Sri Lankan state ethos. Instead, it is in liberating the Tamil North-East where India’s efforts should be focused.
The current frontrunner in Sri Lanka’s presidential polls Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and National People’s Power (NPP) coalition, was invited to visit Delhi earlier this month, where he engaged in a series of high-level talks. The move was seen as recognition from the Indian government that Dissanayake is a serious contender in elections which are set to take place later this year. It also seemed to mark a significant shift in the militantly Marxist JVP, a movement that was once violently anti-Indian but now seemingly open to engagement with Delhi. As Dissanayake’s visit demonstrates, however, the veneer of anti-imperialist politics within the Sinhala left has always been thin. It is not necessarily Indian interests they oppose, simply Tamil ones.
There has been much consternation in recent weeks as the Sri Lankan government passed the Online Safety Bill, a new piece of legislation that essentially allows the state to police and prosecute what individuals and organisations post online. There have been remarks from the United Nations human rights office, diplomats from various Western countries and a host of NGOs – all of whom have expressed concern over the risks to freedom of expression on the island. In the Tamil North-East, however, those concerns have long been a reality. Left unabated and unchallenged by the international community for years, that climate of repression has solidified and is now being rolled out across the island.
The ‘Himalaya Declaration’, a supposed path forward for the island that had the blessings of the Sri Lankan state, contained little substance. Instead, it sought to give a regime that is facing increasing global pressure a cheap veneer of progress, obfuscating more than 15 years of calls for international accountability and whitewashing decades of struggle for self-determination. Those who champion justice for the Tamil genocide will be rightly outraged.
Today tens of thousands of Tamils, from all ages and backgrounds, will gather across the homeland to pay tribute to those who laid down their lives in the armed struggle. The lighting of candles and silent bowing of heads comes despite another year of repeated intimidation and harassment from the Sri Lankan state. Regardless, the nation continues to gather en masse to honour the men and women who fought for it. In paying tribute to the sacrifice of their heroes, the resilience of the nation and its unbowed resistance to destruction is reaffirmed. It cannot be broken.
The former British prime minister has been given another chance to rectify his legacy - this time as foreign minister. Following through on his previous pledges on accountability and justice in Sri Lanka would be the best place to start.
This year marks four decades since the genocidal violence of Black July. With the backing of the Sinhala Buddhist State, Sinhala mobs, armed with electoral rolls and transported by government-owned vehicles, unleashed a torrent of bloodshed killing over 3,000 Tamils, burning down thousands of Tamil homes and businesses, and displacing an estimated 150,000.
Last week, thousands of Tamils, from the political strongholds in Jaffna, the militarised heartlands of the Vanni, to the allegedly contested territories of Amparai, lit up destroyed LTTE cemeteries to pay tribute to those who laid down their lives in the armed struggle. Since 2016, when Tamils reclaimed the Kanagapuram Thuyilum Illam in Kilinochchi to hold Maaveerar Naal publicly for the first time since 2012, when Tamil students were beaten by the Sri Lankan army for attempting to mark the day, the commemorations have been growing in scale each year, disrupted only by the lockdowns of the global pandemic. This year was the largest yet, with events reported in at least thirty locations across the eight districts of the North-East.
Illustration by Keera Ratnam / waves of colour This month in the northern city of Kopay and the eastern city of Mullaitivu, plain-clothed Sri Lankan officers photograph Tamil civilians clearing their desecrated memorials for the LTTE. This surveillance has become routine. It is often followed in rapid succession with threats, intimidation, arbitrary detention, and abuse – a pattern all too familiar for Eelam Tamils. In the most militarised regions of the island, Tamils are prohibited from remembering the sacrifices of their loved ones for a free homeland. Under the threat of Sri Lanka’s...