Recent weeks have once again seen the Sri Lankan military enjoying cordial ties with several members of the international community, including states that have led the call for accountability and justice, as well as been at the forefront of criticising the present militarisation that pervades the North-East and the island as a whole. The US military continues to provide training and hold joint military exercises, as well as engage in ‘development’ projects in the North-East with their Sri Lankan counterparts. Meanwhile, it recently emerged that the UK has approved over £8mn worth of arms sales to the country, including small arms and assault rifles. Current engagement by the West, far from yielding any progress, is only serving to legitimise, embolden and endorse Sri Lanka’s military. Four years of ‘engagement’ has not resulted in progress. The call for justice and accountability has not produced any meaningful results, militarisation is only becoming more pervasive and the military continue to act with impunity.
The shooting of unarmed protesters by a state’s military, as took place in Weliweriya this week , is horrific. The profound perversity of a state turning its military apparatus on the people it purports to protect is universally felt. The Tiananmen Square massacre, Bloody Sunday and even Egypt today, are cases in point. The insurmountable inequity of force and the ensuing bloodshed of the unarmed protesters form a chilling reminder of a state’s simmering potential to abuse its monopoly on violence. The outrage and shock that has reverberated through Sri Lanka’s south following the Weliweriya incident is thus well placed. Yet as with the killings of other dissenting individuals, this tragedy highlights the intractable fallacy of an equal or inclusive ‘Sri Lankan identity’. In Sri Lanka, even death is no equaliser. The killing of a dissenter is defined by ethno-political identity, both that of the individual and their demands.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the anti-Tamil pogrom on the island of Sri Lanka, remembered as 'Black July'. The attacks saw Sinhala mobs roaming streets across the country, killing, burning, looting and raping their way through Tamil neighbourhoods. Tamils were singled out for attack purely on their ethnic identity - their facial appearance, their fledgling Sinhalese, their cultural symbols, and their names on electoral rolls. The pogrom was brutal - an inevitable outcome of decades of rising Sinhala nationalism and anti-Tamil sentiment. Black July was not a reactionary act of rioting. It was the persecution of one ethnicity by another, with the full endorsement of the state - an act of genocide.
Sri Lanka’s attempts to restrict media accreditation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year and bar international journalists who have exposed the atrocities committed against the Tamil people at the end of the armed conflict, have led to widespread condemnation of the state’s abysmal record on press freedom. Whilst the condemnation is welcome, the current furore negates the very crux of the conflict – the Tamil question. The Sri Lankan state’s clampdown on press freedom is not universal in its intention or impact. Instead, Sri Lanka has a long-standing policy of targeting the Tamil press (and by extension, non-Tamil journalists probing Tamil injustices) in an attempt to silence the Eelam Tamil nation. To Tamil journalists working in the North-East, the granting of media accreditation to their international counterparts is of little consequence. The juxtaposition, so close to home, only serves to highlight the lack of press freedom available to them.
The attack on Tamil ‘Boycott Sri Lankan Cricket’ campaigners by Sri Lankan cricket fans at the Oval on June 17th was truly shocking. What began as Sri Lankan fans shouting and spitting at activists, swelled into anti-Tamil taunting followed by physical assaults, where Tamil activists were punched and kicked by a mob. This attack was not alcohol fuelled sporting hooliganism; nor was it pro-government Sri Lankans attacking anti-government activists - as the attackers’ taunting made clear, the activists were targeted solely because of their Eelam Tamil identity, not for their campaigning. The attack was racially motivated violence by ordinary Sri Lankans against Eelam Tamils on the streets of London.
President Rajapaksa’s begrudging announcement of a Northern Provincial Council election in September has sparked an utterly predictable melee of impassioned responses to the 13th Amendment. The government is presenting an urgent bill to parliament, a minister is demanding a referendum to guarantee abolition, the TNA is aghast, a party of Buddhist monks is on the warpath, and an alarmed New Delhi is summoning the TNA for talks. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s main opposition, the UNP, is attempting to position itself as defender of ‘minority’ rights. This circus is a farce. Neither the 13th Amendment, nor the provincial council election, is of any consequence to the Tamil question. The 13th Amendment cannot address the immediate needs of the Tamil people in the North-East, or the political aspirations of the nation. Its presence, absence and anything in between is of absolute insignificance and irrelevance. That Tamils are compelled to reiterate this 26 years on, is testament to the dismaying lack of progress on resolving the conflict.
Four years have passed since the Tamil nation suffered the zenith of genocide inflicted upon it by the Sri Lankan state, where tens of thousands of Tamils were herded into a tiny of slither of land, only to be massacred with heavy artillery, systematically raped and tortured, deliberately starved, deprived of humanitarian assistance and murdered in cold blood. The evidence - not only indicative of the appalling nature of the crimes, but the intentional and systematic way in which they were perpetrated – is increasing. Yet despite this, and the ample time that has passed, Tamils have not seen a credible, international process towards accountability and justice, or a meaningful attempt to deliver a political solution that ensures their future security. The Tamil nation is instead, more exposed now than ever before – its identity is being destroyed, its claims to nationhood are being dismantled and its homeland erased of its Tamil character.
British Prime Minister David Cameron must reverse his decision to attend the CHOGM summit in Colombo later this year. His presence will merely legitimise a regime widely accused of mass atrocities and intensifying repression, and seriously undermine international efforts to pursue human rights protection, accountability, democracy and resolution of Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis. The decision is inherent to a flawed policy towards Sri Lanka, which Britain terms ‘engagement’ but is in effect one of appeasement and support. If Sri Lanka’s inexorable slide into violent instability is to be reversed,...
The Sri Lankan state’s forcible appropriation of Tamil-owned land and property has escalated in recent weeks. The state’s de-facto seizure of vast tracts of residential land, plantations and farms, occupied and enclosed in ‘high security zones’ during the war by the military, has been ‘legalised’ by new decrees. However, instead of dousing Tamil resistance to Sinhala hegemony, it will have precisely the opposite effect, galvanising anew Tamil hostility to the state and the Sinhalese. The forcible appropriation of land and property brings home to the majority of Tamil families the force of Sinhala oppression today, and fuels the thirst for Tamil Eelam, in ways abstract nationalist appeals cannot.
The forthcoming Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting in London can play a crucial role in shaping Sri Lanka’s future. The group must fulfil its responsibility to facilitate collective action by the Commonwealth and directly address Sri Lanka’s grave and systematic violation of values and principles that the Commonwealth has proclaimed to be its own. The CMAG has considerable power. Sri Lanka deserves to be suspended from the Commonwealth and at the very least should not be allowed to host the November Heads of Government Meeting. Failure to act, however, will effectively...