Sri Lanka in July 2009

by padraigcolman

Sri Lanka: view from the ground

This was the first article I had published on Le Monde diplomatique


Exclusive July 2009, by Padraig Colman

Even those Sri Lankans, including Tamils, who were dubious about their government’s decision to pursue the military option against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are relieved that the venture appears successful. They also are surprised at the reaction to the victory by nations such as the US, the UK, India and Israel, and the sharp criticism about civilian casualties and displaced people.

From Sri Lanka, it feels as if the Tamil diaspora in the UK, Canada, US and Australia has overly influenced the media in those places. People in the West seem to believe that all Sri Lankan Tamils were confined to a narrow strip of beach under shellfire from government troops, and are now herded into concentration camps. I do not wish to downplay the suffering of those in the north, but the reality is that Tamils are spread throughout Sri Lanka and many are prosperous and influential.

A distinguished Tamil journalist based in Canada, DB Jeyaraj, wrote: “The Tamils need to remind themselves that the LTTE, despite its prolonged campaign, has ultimately achieved nothing for the Tamil people. If the LTTE had converted the military strength it once enjoyed into bargaining power at the negotiating table, the Sri Lankan Tamils would have been much better off. It did not and in the process has brought misery and despair to the Tamil people.”

Dr Noel Nadesan, editor of Uthayam, a Tamil newspaper in Australia, wrote: “The Sri Lankan president deserves the congratulations of all Sri Lankans regardless of their ethnicity. More than any other community, the Sri Lankan Tamils owe him their thanks for ending their misery.”

As a Tamil blogger remarked: “I hold no brief for the Sri Lankan government which, unfortunately, is growing more despotic by the day”, but he wondered why Sri Lanka should have agreed to a ceasefire when it had the Tiger leader trapped; it was unlikely that, in similar circumstances, the US would let Osama bin Laden escape.

Hillary Clinton has criticised Sri Lanka for being too tough on the Tamil Tigers — and Pakistan for not being tough enough on the Taliban. (In Swat there are up to two million displaced civilians. There is a shortfall in humanitarian aid and NGOs are pulling out.)

The current Indian government promotes reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Memories of India’s previous interventions are still acute in Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi’s government funded and armed Sri Lankan terrorists, including the LTTE. In 1987 an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tried and failed to disarm the LTTE. Tamil sources asserted that more than half of the victims of the IPKF 1987 offensive were Tamil civilians and Brigadier Manjit Singh admitted: “We could not differentiate between the LTTE and the civilians.” In October 1987 Indian troops stormed into Jaffna hospital, throwing grenades and firing, killing 70 doctors, staff and patients.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian, argues that the Sri Lankan army had similar problems recently, noting that “the category ‘civilian’ is an ambiguous category”, because the LTTE command-state integrated civilians into the front line. Roberts makes a comparison with the end of the second world war, when the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender and carpet bombed civilians (and exploded the atomic bomb) to attain that goal.

The Sri Lankan government was taken by surprise when Israel, in spite of or because of, its actions in Gaza, accused Sri Lanka of indiscriminate military action and violations of human rights in fighting LTTE terrorism. Israel supplied military hardware and expertise which were probably significant factors in the LTTE’s defeat.

The writer and journalist Neil Ascherson has written about the way the British delude themselves that they built and divested themselves of their empire in a decent fashion, although, in fact, “In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.” The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, was involved during a recent visit to Colombo in a shouting match with Sri Lanka’s defence supremo, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who felt it necessary to remind Miliband that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. Miliband has been complicit in US rendition and torture and Britain continues to allow the US to use the British colony of Diego Garcia, from which it expelled the inhabitants, for those purposes.

A recent report by Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, found that accountability in the US has been “deplorable”; few would doubt that the US has killed civilians and used torture in Iraq. In Britain, Miliband proposes that an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in Iraq be held in secret, but Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence, said: “There is only one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this government. There are 179 reasons [179 dead soldiers] why the military want the truth to be out on what happened over Iraq.” Major General Julian Thompson said that the military wanted to be heard in public “the allegation that a British government manipulated intelligence to take part in an illegal war.”

Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN has said: “Sri Lanka is not the case of an army of occupation invading and occupying another country. Sri Lanka’s army is a military that serves a constitutional democracy, a military that fought a war strictly within its recognised borders against a separatist, terrorist militia, with whom the state had tried to arrive at a peaceful settlement on numerous occasions. Therefore, we will not have forced upon us formulae and paradigms derived from entirely different contexts.”

Because those accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes are not free of guilt themselves, should the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka be ignored? Some would argue that a full investigation of war crimes would be a distraction from the reconciliation process; others argue that reconciliation is impossible if war crimes are not investigated (perhaps more bitterness is felt among the diaspora than among Tamils in Sri Lanka).

The reconciliation process in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland have been cited. There is no doubt that Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered discrimination and there has, in the past, been horrific anti-Tamil violence. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like South Africa, Palestine or even Louisiana. The government was fighting terrorists, not trying to wipe out the Tamil population. In Sri Lanka a democratically-elected government increased its popularity with voters by overthrowing a de facto unelected, totalitarian military dictatorship in part of its internationally recognised sovereign territory, and intends to restore democracy to that area. In Northern Ireland peace was achieved through long negotiations when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its arms and put its goal of a united Ireland in abeyance. The LTTE went into any “negotiation” with an uncompromising demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

There are arguments that the government must blame itself because of inept PR and censorship. Certainly, the news has been manipulated under the cover of “prevention of terrorism” and press freedom will continue to be threatened. Anti-terrorism laws (perhaps not as draconian as in the UK or US) remain in place and many investigations into attacks on the media remain unresolved.

President Rajapakse’s reputation is high with the Sinhalese majority and he should now have the political capital to reach out for the hearts and minds of the Tamil community and bring them within a unified nation without fear of backlash. It is to be hoped that other governments and the international media will help the nationbuilding by supporting reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

30 comments on « Sri Lanka: view from the ground »

  • #
    2 July 2009 @15h15
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Tks for the unbiased comments. You see the problem wisely and broadly. Why not others can see it this way.

    From Canada

  • # Happy Reader :
    2 July 2009 @16h19
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thanks for the article.

    Yes, the Sri Lankan Government should reach out to the tamil community (only in Sri Lanka), but the Tamil community should also reciprocate and rule out a separate or federal state. This would remove a lot of the understadable fear and suspicion.

    Non-war related discrimination against Tamils is only the language issue for the rural community, just as the vast majority of Sinhalese faced during British rule. This should be rectified.

    But in the long run, multi-ethnic integration based on new commercial centres in the north, east and south is the only real solution. Basically, develop the rural areas and people will forget their ’greivances’.

  • # Mohamed Jamal/Doha :
    2 July 2009 @17h16
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    AS a Sri Lankan I 100% agree with what Dayan Jayatilaka our UN/Ambassador says. We have best democracy in the world. Anybody violate the law will dealt with country’s law.
  • #
    2 July 2009 @19h17
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    It has been/is dishartening to see the condescending double standards of the ’international community’ regarding the actions taken by the Sri Lankan government to unify the country.

    It is also unfathomable why a minority should be able to own almost a majority of a soverign nation, which, unfortunately was one of the fuels that supplied this three decade long pointless blaze of hatred.

    The only solution possible now is to reconcile, but remember the past such that future generations will not repeat the same mistakes, and come together to rebuild the nation to her original glory as the ’Pearl of the Indian Ocean’

  • # MAHESH :
    2 July 2009 @19h39
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
  • # Sepala Munasinghe :
    2 July 2009 @19h46
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    An investigation into corruption at the highest level over an arms deal was stopped by an executive order; the Constitutional Head of the country, in whose name a criminal prosecution was brought against a private individual, was less than honest in regard to it bringing the criminal justice system into disrepute;the second legislative Chamber has in its membership convicted criminals; the first legilative Chamber comprises members who de-frauded the tax revenues of the country for their own use; a judicial inquiry by the High Court into allegations of torture could not proceed to a meaningful conclusion because of an Executive order;a Prime Minister holding office is criminally investigated by the leading law enforcement agency. Are we referring to a bannana republic? A fish and chips monarchy more likely! UK lost its moral authority long time ago to lecture on international/humanitarian law to other countries.
  • # Himan :
    2 July 2009 @19h46
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    UK’s colonial mindset has to be eradicated first. Sri Lanka is a small country, but bullying small nations should be severely dealt with.
    Sri Lanka should claim damages to the nation as a whole fromthe British giovernment. There are no two questions about it. The damage UK caused to the society, economy and environemnt is immense. They did the same to other countries they captured. It is indeed a crime. FOr that they have to pay.
    That alone would be enough for Sri Lanka to prosper and to sustain as the pearl of the Indian ocean, which existed before the British rule.
  • # Serenity Now :
    2 July 2009 @20h16
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Very Nice article. Very good journalism. Good to know that there are still professional journalists, and not just tabloid writers out there.
  • # MahamahaRaja :
    2 July 2009 @21h17
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Tamils have not faced any “discrimination” in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE!

    Do some research before regurgitating terrorist propaganda.

  • # Selvam :
    2 July 2009 @23h31
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    This article gives an unbias brief account in this island’s terrorist problem.No country should be given a chance to intervene into their internal problems. The tamil dispora in Uk,Usa,Canada and othere countries should not be considered as Sri Lankan tamils since they left Sri Lanka for their personal gains and only tamils in Sri Lanka should be accounted and they know their problems very well.Also they are the people who are going to live with the majority Sri Lankans.
  • #
    3 July 2009 @00h38
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Well said Le Monde. It is heartening to note that there is still unbiassed reporting without the influence of ’diaspora dollars’. Reconciliation and rehabilitation should be the need of the hour and not the hatred peddled by the tamil diaspora who are smarting due to the fact that their contributions over the years have amounted to nothing but misery for those living in SL. If they had planted some mango trees over there, people would now be reaping some fruits at least. from Nandi

  • #
    3 July 2009 @03h37
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Selective quotes from pro-government Tamils does not acurately reflect the ground situation nor does comparing the situation to other countries.
    Just because US’ and UK’s practise torture or committ other human rights violations means the Rajapaksa regime’s horrific treatment of Tamils is OK. The Rajapaksa regime are war criminals and should be treated as such.


  • # Nissan :
    3 July 2009 @04h52
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Nothing more than a lip service to the Government of Sri Lanka.
  • # Lanka Lion :
    3 July 2009 @04h52
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thank you very much.

    Nothing can be more true.

  • # Siri From NY, USA :
    3 July 2009 @06h13
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    The winners of the war against the LTTE are the Sri Lankan people and they should never allow any foreign power to interfere in the internal affairs of their country. The big losers are the Western powers who tried to side with the LTTE for Tamil diaspora votes. However it is surprising that Hillary Clinton took the stand she did as the Tamil votes in the USA is insignificant. She should also keep in mind that there are many non Tamil Sri Lankans in the USA who supported the Democratic party in the last election and her attitude may antagonise them. Many of the Tamil protesters may not even be vote carrying citizens as they came as refugees. Only the unemployed have time to protest on the streets. It is also possible that the monetary contributions made by the Tamil diaspora to Clinton’s fund may have helped her to form her opinion. This kind of foreign policy will not benefit America as we keep losing our friends all over the world and this becomes crucial in the voting at the UN. Sri Lanka has always been a friend of the USA and they are being badly treated for personal gain.
  • # Trevor (Berlin) :
    3 July 2009 @11h07
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Well said! I belong to the Burger community, also a minority group in SL that is privileged due to it’s mother-tongue being the english language. I was born, bread and “buttered” in Colombo and grew up in a very comfortable atmosphere together with my Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay and Bora english-speaking friends, colleagues and neighbours. Mind you, the Tamil-diaspora abroad does not consist of only SL-Tamils but also Tamils from other nations. Remember, there are over 100 million Tamils in the world. In comparison, the Sinhalese (about 18 million) are in the minority. It is obvious that the English try to protect the Tamils as the Tamils were the government servants during the colonial period. The first schools built by the English in SL were in the Northern and Eastern provinces where the majority Tamils lived. The Sinhalese only wanted to see the English out of their country. It is pathetic that the English have now scooped down to such a level in allowing even SL-cricket fans be mollested by Tamil demonstrators, some of those who have not even seen the shores of SL. If such ignorance should prevail, then the SL cricket board should consider boycotting future cricket games in England. Tamils who are disheartened with our beautiful country should consider moving over to Tamil Nadu, there are over 60 million Tamils there to support you!! It’s time that the other minorites of SL expressed their views so that the world is not misled by the false propaganda of the Tamil diaspora. Politicians like Hillary Clinton should first visit our country before making unsavourable remarks. I love my motherland!
  • # mohan :
    3 July 2009 @22h41
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    It is a well balanced article..however lacks the vision of what should be done for the future..winning the hearts and minds of the minority community should be the priority of the government…Minority communities, especially tamils are wounded souls.. not necessarily of their own fault.. LTTE’s peak was infact the by product of SL policies and naiveness of the tamils..and these have to be reversed as a matter of priority by both communities.. A military victory alone does not solve a political problem that has languished over several decades in one form or the other. what is needed is progressive policies and visionery constituitions akin to other successful country for example like singapore. All communities must be a stake-holder in re-building the country. Both the tamil and sinhalese communities take a look at themselves and ask the question: we have to live in this island (where we lived for the 2000 odd years under several forms of rules) for the forseable future (unless some thing like a tsunami strikes..) and there fore we have to find a way to be masters of our own destiny.. after all the measure of a society’s progressiveness must be measured how it accommodated and co-existed with other’s not the other way around…may it is time to introduce “good citizenship” lessons as grassroot levels..A brand new contituition acceptable to all at the MACRO level would be the answer.. then at the micro level and political structures all shades of aspirations could be accommodated depending on the areas of rule..All it would take imagination and compromises by all..
  • #
    4 July 2009 @02h30
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Excellent article. If only more western journalists would bother to report on the ground realities……..

    Thank you!

  • #
    4 July 2009 @02h36
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    A beautifully written article. In my view, well balanced, and I agree with it 100%.
  • #
    4 July 2009 @03h23
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    It is a rare unbiased artile. As a Sinhalese I believe that Sri Lanka is a country belonging to all its people – regardless of their ethnicities. The issues in Sri Lanka today are common to poor people in the country – has little to do with ethnicities. Sinhala though is the official language, the private sector, recognised as the engine of growth will employ capable people who can communicate in English. Henc,there is no descrimination.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    4 July 2009 @05h54
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thank you to all those who have made further comments.

    MahamahaRaja , who accused me of “regurgitating terrorist propaganda”, also said “Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE!”

    He seems to be confusing two types of Tamils here.

    The British indeed stole the land of the Sinhalese in order to create plantations to grow coffee, tea and rubber for the profit of the British Empire. Not unnaturally, the Sinhalese were not too keen on helping the British turn a profit on the stolen land. The British solved their labour problem by importing indentured labourers from South India to labour on the plantations and pluck the tea and work in the factories. After independence these people were deprived of citizenship by Sinhalese-dominated governments.

    The involvement of plantation Tamils in politics has mainly been restricted to trade union matters. The main thrust for a separate state for Tamils, and subsequently terrorism, has come from the Tamils in the north who have lived in Sri Lanka for many centuries. The British played a role here also because they used divide and rule tactics, as they commonly did all over the Empire, and were felt by Sinhalese to favour educated “Jaffna Tamils”.

    Plantation Tamils have very little to do with the diaspora or with terrorism. Saying that Tamils who were “brought like slaves” are “wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them,“ makes no sense at all. What privileges do slaves have? Do some research Mahamaha.

    Mohan said: “A military victory alone does not solve a political problem that has languished over several decades in one form or the other. What is needed is progressive policies and visionary constitutions”. I agree wholeheartedly. I would like to say to Mohan that I agree with him that progressive policies are essential if further conflict is to be avoided.

    I am limited by the space available here and was mainly focusing in this particular piece on western hypocrisy. I am working on further articles to cover Mohan’s concerns.

    Also, I have already dealt with many issues relating to Sri Lanka at great length and in great detail on another blog at Open Salon, for example:
    blog/padraig colman/
    tamil separatism in
    sri lanka part 1

  • # Ranjith V.A. Embuldeniya :
    4 July 2009 @07h10
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    While I personally agree with the article published in the Le Monde I think it would be the same with any sane minded Sri Lankan.

    Apart from the tribute we pay to the gallantry displayed by the members of the Armed Forces and the political will displayed this time in bringing this curse which was on Sri Lanka to an end, I hope and pray that successive governments will also choose their diplomats in the future in the likes of Professors Dayan Jayathilleke and Rajiv Wijesinghe who have the ingredients in them beyond any measure to represent Sri Lanka at any foreign forum.

  • # Sunil :
    4 July 2009 @07h37
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    As many others have done I wish to thank you for what I honestly believe is a truthful and extremely balanced assessment of the facts.I have no doubt that the Real Tamils of Sri Lanka ,that is the Tamil people who live there and have chosen to do so against all odds must be grateful their ordeal has finally come to an end.It is not the outcome they set out to achieve in the first instance.Thank heavens or ones Karmic forces if one is agnostic, that it’s not the outcome that the selfish and selfserving Tamil Diaspora tried to force upon them.Had that come to fruition it would have meant the death knell for the sons and daughters of thousands of innocent Tamil and Sinhalese Mothers for another 30 years whilst the diaspora parents pet and pampered their own offspring in comfortable Western climes.
  • # Ruveni :
    4 July 2009 @09h29
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    It is indeed refreshing to read a balanced presentation after reading foreign corrospondents writing with a colonial neurosis.The problem is they do not concentrate on being objective but opines views to further the interest of their own country or agenda often fashioned by their sponsers or paymasters or whom they meet in Colombo’s alienated society called the Colombians.

    I have decided not to believe BBC or Al Jazeera or CNN after following reports on Sri Lanka.So I disbelive them on Iran whereas previously some reliance would have been placed.They misled the world and themselves in supporting the terrorists and finally got egg in the face when they lost out.In shame, with the defeat of their pet poodles,they are becoming more vituperative.The real issue consequent to misreading and misinterpreting, is falling into the losers column as in Afghanistan and Iraq.So it is jealousy against a small nation for achieving which they are still trying to follow and cntnue to fail.They will never understand how to handle an issues until they know the aspirations of a wide spectrum of opinion within a country.

    Please write objectively on other conficts too.Your name is now recognised and read with respect.

  • # shanie :
    6 July 2009 @07h15
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    This blog received so many responses because in the western media there are so few objective writings.Most are subjective according to the gospet they preach.West is not interested in the truth but in the vested interest of the west,
  • # ruwan :
    11 July 2009 @07h54
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Maham’s email address tells the tale.It reads needs no further introduction.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    11 July 2009 @13h39
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    I followed the link that Maham recommended to me. I see that there is much interesting reading there which will inform work I am doing on the general subject of nationalism. I was struck by a quotation from a Tamil poem at the top of the page.

    “To us all towns are one, all men our kin.

    Life’s good comes not from others’ gift, nor ill.

    Man’s pains and pains’ relief are from within.

    Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !.”

    Those are wise words which should serve as an inspiration to all of us.

  • # MahamahaRaja :
    25 February 2010 @10h30
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    To the writer, you can moan as much you like, but the majority of Tamils in the country were brought in illegally. You still do not explain how they are “discriminated” or “marginalized.” It is you who is confused, and It is you who should do some research. Poor attempt at a straw man there with talk of “different types of tamils” as if that has any relevance whatsoever to the issue at hand.

    The entirety of the island was ruled by one Sinhalese King for the entirety of history, before the interference of colonialists, who used Tamils as a battering ram against the Sinhalese who would not bow to them, the Sinhalese who refused to learn their language, and the Sinhalese who would not convert to the whites’ religion – all these things were done by the Tamils in order to gain some power. If they had anything worth protecting, such as the Nation that the Sinhalese had, they would have fought and died for it rather than sucking up to foreign barbarians. The Sinhalese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Aborigines, Maoris, Zulus, and Native Americans all fought against foreign barbarians. Not the Tamils though. Why? I wonder.

    Stop spouting terrorist propaganda, and go sort out the problems in the banlieus before coming to talk about Sri Lanka.

  • # Prashan :
    18 April 2010 @09h02
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Great article! But must remember Tamils are not at all discriminated in Sri Lanka. Tamil is official only in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu means Tamil homeland where 55 million Tamils live but yet Tamil is not official there. I hope great journalists like Padraig Colman are used by BBC for interview and not Tamil diaspora terrorists like Suren Surendiran.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    1 May 2010 @07h57
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    MahamRaja – why are you sending me off to the banlieues? I write about countries that I know. I have lived in UK, Ireland and Sri Lanka. I have never lived in France so I will not attempt to write about French issues.You have a very confused picture of Sri Lankan history. I would be happy to discuss any matter with you by e-mail. contact me on I am always happy to be corrected on matters of fact and to have a civilized, adult discussion about matters of opinion.

    Prashan I am afraid that cannot agree with you fully. I will be in touch through Facebook or e-mail. Thank you for your interest.