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.
Almost at the centenary of the first anti-Muslim riots by Sinhala mobs in 1915, the violence unleashed against Muslims in the Aluthgama last month marks a new step in the advance of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony in Sri Lanka. While the active complicity of the military and police in the organised attacks by Sinhala nationalists on Muslim businesses and homes is well recognised, what is striking is not only the government’s open contempt for Muslim leaders’ frantic protests and appeals, but the wider demonstrable support for the nationalist BBS (Buddhist Power Force) movement. Much of the analysis...
The idea that Sri Lanka's opposition parties should unite to topple President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government has surfaced yet again, with much discussion of a common Presidential challenger and speculation over likely candidates. Underlying this, is the assumption and claim, that the main opposition, United National Party (UNP) is the liberal antithesis of Rajapaksa's authoritarian, violent and Sinhala nationalist rule. However, quite apart from the UNP’s own history of rule, its politics of late suggests there are good reasons to be sceptical. Its recent clamour over human rights and other liberal values, belies a deafening silence on central issue of crisis for Sri Lanka – justice and accountability for wartime mass atrocities, and a political solution which addresses long-standing Tamil political demands. In fact leading UNP figures are explicitly supportive of the Rajapaksa government on these issues. Whilst the international community ought to take a closer, more critical look at the UNP's conduct, past and present, before assuming it to be the panacea to Rajapaksa rule, it beholds the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), having secured its electoral mandate on justice, accountability, and the Tamil right to self-determination, to ensure these are the foundation of any alliance.
The killings of three Tamil men last week, who the Sri Lankan military claims were attempting to revive the LTTE, has spread terror amongst the Tamil population. The culmination of weeks of heightened military activity in the North-East, including mass arrests, interrogations and widespread house to house search operations, the killings serve as a collective warning and reminder to the Tamil people of the state's response, capability and preparedness to curtail any Tamil resistance. As public executions do else where, the killings seek to enforce control through violence and fear. Under the guise of counter terrorism measures, the Sri Lankan state is terrorising the Tamil population, on a scale not seen since the end of the armed conflict. Inducing fear, which disintegrates not only Tamil political space, but also social space, is the primary goal.
The Sri Lankan government's proscription last week of 15 Tamil diaspora organisations and over 400 individuals was a brazen attempt to instil fear into the Tamil people. Over and beyond those specifically named or officially affiliated to the organisations, given the organisations' mass membership, the proscription criminalises a quarter of the Eelam Tamil population, and all Tamils living on the island who engage with them. It is the mass banning of Tamil civil society. Sri Lanka's broad definition of 'terrorism', including those demanding Tamil political rights and those that criticise human rights abuses by the state, effectively encompasses any threat to Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Any remaining faint hopes of reconciliation, are made even more unlikely. Ultimately and entirely in keeping with the Sri Lankan state's overarching and long-standing project of consolidating its hegemony, the proscription - ironically only made significant by virtue of the nation's very inextricable connectedness - is an attempt to dismantle the Tamil nation and thereby seek to extinguish the nation's political aspirations.
The UN Human Rights Council's adoption of a resolution last week calling on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into Sri Lanka is a key milestone in the protracted Tamil struggle. The Council which in May 2009 praised Sri Lanka for its 'victory', now calls for it to be subject to an international inquiry. Whilst the intensification of Sri Lanka's militarised repression in the North-East, even during the Council's 25th session, underscores the inability of the resolution to lead to any immediate change on the ground, the significance of this moment - hard fought and long overdue – is nonetheless profound. Almost five years after the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamils, in what international experts have described as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide, the international community has come to acknowledge what Tamils had consistently argued was the case: Sri Lanka lacks the will to deliver justice to the Tamil people, international intervention is essential.