Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Is Sri Lanka Heading for Military Rule?

Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule?

Next month Sri Lanka will have a presidential election. Not long ago the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, would have been a shoo-in on the strength of his defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). But now an alliance of opposition parties has put forward retired General Sarath Fonseka, Rajapaksa’s partner in victory, as their “common candidate”.
Exclusive December 2009, by Padraig Colman

Upali, the driver, is confused. He’s feeling like the child of a broken marriage, torn between two disputatious parents. He doesn’t have any luxuries, but he is proud to be a citizen of Sri Lanka, secure in his sense of Buddhist Sinhala identity. He feels no acrimony for those of other ethnic groups or religions. Without any sense of triumphalism he rejoices that his country is at peace. A national flag flies over his corrugated iron roof and two portraits are similarly displayed – of President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka. For Upali, these two men were the saviours of his motherland.

Upali doesn’t know how to cope with the news that his two heroes now seem to have become enemies. Fonseka, the army commander who led the military victory against the LTTE Tigers, has resigned as chief of defence staff, complaining about his reduced security detail and the loss of his official accommodation. This is reminiscent of King Lear with Mahinda and his brother, defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in place of Goneril and Regan. The president addresses rallies using the word “traitor”.

The United National Front (UNF) opposition coalition running Fonseka as its presidential candidate is a motley crew of 18 parties. The main opposition party is the United National Party (UNP), but it is depleted and needs help. The UNF has a kingmaker, Mangala Samaraweera, who was once Mahinda’s foreign minister and chief strategist, and was instrumental in getting Mahinda to be president. It is rumoured that Samaraweera bribed the Tigers into stopping UNP supporters from voting, enabling Rajapaksa to win by a narrow margin. Samaraweera later resigned in protest against the government’s human rights record and formed a breakaway group. (And he remarked that Fonseka was not fit to run the Salvation Army.)

The other main prong of the alliance is the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, People’s Liberation Front), a party that staged two bloody revolutions in pursuit of an extreme Marxist Sinhala nationalist agenda. Their fanatical anti-western stance led to comparisons with Pol Pot. They later re-invented themselves as a legitimate parliamentary party and joined a coalition with President Chandrika Kumaratunge (even though they had killed her husband). All very Shakespearian.

The UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, ought to be the main contender against Rajapaksa in a presidential election. But, unfortunately for the opposition, Ranil is seen as a dead man walking. (When he was prime minister, he had agreed to a humiliating ceasefire which allowed the Tigers to regroup and re-arm. As a consequence the UNP got only 30% of the vote in the recent provincial elections.) In contrast, Rajapaksa is seen as the man with the courage and firmness to press ahead until military victory over the Tigers was complete.

The UNF plan is for the victorious general to appoint Ranil as caretaker prime minister and then set about abolishing the executive presidency which, under the current constitution, is where the real power in Sri Lanka sits. So Ranil, who has shown a special gift for losing elections as well as UNP members, will get to rule the country after all.

The UNF carefully drafted Fonseka’s resignation letter and released it to the world. The general made substantive amendments to the draft and released his own version. According to Kumar David in the Sunday Island, “The alterations are all retrogressive, reactionary and militaristic; unwelcome to democrats and unacceptable to Tamils.”

In 1990 there had been large-scale massacres of Tamil youths in the Amparai District, under Fonseka’s command. He was thought to have a hand in some attacks on journalists. Tamils, Muslims and Burghers have taken exception to derogatory remarks made in October 2008. Rajapaksa said the opposition had embraced someone whom it had been blaming for violence, and was now hailing as the saviour of democracy.

Interestingly, Fonseka has felt the need to deny responsibility (to the current Sunday Leader editor) for the murder of the previous Sunday Leader editor. The Leader seems to be supporting the general.

The Asian Tribune (1) alleges that Fonseka’s son-in-law became a multi-millionaire because of the war and used his family connections to submit false evidence in order to win tenders with the Sri Lankan security forces. The paper says: “A few generals and others got involved in the deals under the instruction of Gen Fonseka and covered up the issue.” Fonseka’s family deny these allegations.

Complaining about the venality and ineffectiveness of politicians is a Sri Lankan national pastime. Yet for all its troubles, Sri Lanka is a long-running democracy. But some Sri Lankans believe democracy, particularly an electoral system based on proportional representation, is unable to deliver effective governance in a “developing” country; some would prefer a military man to a politician.

There were recent newspaper reports that India was on standby after hearing from the Sri Lankan government that a military coup was imminent. India denies this. There had been an attempted military coup back in 1962 which was easily quashed. Lingering fears of a coup have led to soldiers of Fonseka’s regiment, who were guarding sensitive installations, being replaced by soldiers of the regiment of the new army commander, Lt General Jagath Jayasuriya.

It is unlikely that Fonseka would have the capacity to organise a coup because he has alienated too many fellow officers with his huge ego. And there has been a long-standing rivalry between Fonseka and the navy chief.

Most of the military would agree that the general is mistaken in siding with a party that nearly handed half of Sri Lanka’s land mass and a third of its coast to a terrorist group and compromised the nation’s sovereignty. After much coyness, Fonseka has finally backed into the limelight. Speaking at a lawyer’s forum in Colombo, he acknowledged for the first time that he will contest the upcoming election as a common opposition candidate and will work towards abolishing the Executive Presidency.

Rajapaksa has another two years of his first term to run. There is a strong possibility that during that time the fragile opposition will disintegrate and the general’s reputation would then lose its sheen. However, Rajapaksa is a canny politician and is perhaps calculating that it is best to seek re-election now, while his popularity is high, before mundane matters like the high cost of living and unemployment trump the victory over the LTTE.

One of the many ironies arising out of the muddle of Sri Lankan politics is that Tamils have their best chance for decades to exert mainstream national influence — not through a violent Tamil group dedicated to separatism, but because the Sinhalese nationalist vote will be split by the pique of its two lions who defeated the Tigers. These two are now both reaching out to minorities for support.

5 comments on « Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule? »

  • #
    12 January 2010 @11h53  
    Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule?
    Sorry but did I miss any mention of the Tamil genocide that has been going on for over 50 years? Or is that all an illusion too? Probably just not newsworthy.
  • #
    13 January 2010 @22h30  
    Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule?
    Can’t wait to read Padraig Coleman’s description of what happened in Ruwanda. I nominate him for a journalism prize.
  • # T.Rajendran :
    23 January 2010 @09h56  
    Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule?
    Very bad article written without a simple understanding of the problem. I wonder how Tamils could make a good out of this election. There lands are heavily militirised and will be so. And, no promises from either candidates about their long standing demands. No matter who wins, they are going to be treated like what the medieval period kings did to the other race that was subjugated by war.You can try to understand things by using some of the words that i think are not available in ur dictionary.
    Self-determination (Separatism), Historical home land of Tamil Speaking People-One third of Srilanka,Celebrating men who killed hundres and thousands of Civilion- (He doesn’t have any triumphalism). I’ve to stop as i’m not a professional in this vulgar business that was called journalism.
  • # benedictus :
    25 January 2010 @22h41  
    Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule?
    So very true, so very sad. Lankans have the choice between a rock and a hard place. It’s either the Corrupt Raja and his greedy clan or the Warrior-gone-Politics with his former fiends as newly found allies. Any which way: long, long way to go, Poor Lanka!
    Thanks, Mr Colman, for the brilliant write-up – if you need translation into German, pls. let me know. I’d be glad to…
  • # Padraig Colman :
    15 February 2010 @11h44  
    Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule?

    Thank you Benedictus. Contact me at

    ‘Sorry but did I miss any mention of the Tamil genocide that has been going on for over 50 years? Or is that all an illusion too? Probably just not newsworthy.’ I’m afraid that I do not have the skill to cover 50 years of Sri Lankan history in 1,000 words. I am quite capable of covering the issue of genocide but this was not the place. The British under Cromwell inflicted genocide on my people. You fault me for not covering an issue that was not the subject of the article.

    ‘Very bad article written without a simple understanding of the problem.’ Thank you for your kind words Rajendran. I do understand the irony of Tamils voting for the man who was in charge of the army that was shelling them and made derogatory remarks about minorities. It would be unlikely if either candidate did any good for the Tamils. However, it is a fact that both candidates felt the need to seek Tamil support and both got it from various factions of Tamil parties. . Do you dispute that, Rajendran, or do you just wish to be personally offensive to me? Do you live in Sri Lanka? Fonseka did well in the north. I agree wholeheartedly with you that neither candidate made any sensible attempt to heal the wounds that gave rise to the LTTE. The LTTE did not help the Tamil cause. Don’t fight with me. I am not your enemy. You are condemning me for not writing a different article.

Dirty Harry in Sri Lanka

Dirty Harry in Sri Lanka

Exclusive September 2009, by Padraig Colman

Sri Lankans found it hard to celebrate the 143rd anniversary of the police force established by Ceylon’s British rulers (established on 3 September 1866). One incident (among many) has highlighted the danger of people’s frustration at police impunity turning into mob outrage and vigilante “justice”.

It happened at a police post at Angulana, a working class area not far from the coastal Colombo suburb and tourist haunt of Mount Lavinia. The Officer in Charge (OIC) at Angulana was one TJ Newton.

On 13 August two young men from Angulana were found murdered. One body was found near a bridge one kilometre from the police station, the other on the seashore. The medical officer who conducted the post-mortem reported that both bodies had multiple bullet wounds in the chest and legs. The two dead men had been arrested on 12 August after a complaint that they had been harassing a woman (“Eve-teasing” as the local press quaintly term it) in a tsunami camp nearby.

A witness, a man who had been in the police station cells, said: “When they brought them in, I could see more than five police officers kicking, punching and throwing things at them. Later OIC Newton came. They took them to the OIC’s room. I heard them being beaten by the belt and the OIC shouted to another police officer to bring him fire, then he was burning and beating them from time to time.”

The following Sunday, about 5,000 people took part in a funeral procession to protest against this brutal killing. An effigy of OIC Newton was burned. Local people described the Angulana post as more like a brothel-cum-tavern than a police station. Nine police officers from Angulana police station were arrested and a court heard that they had been drunk on the night of the murders. Eyewitnesses testified that armed police officers blindfolded the young men and took them away in a jeep on the night of 12 August. The two victims, handcuffed and with blue polythene bags over their heads, were bundled into the jeep by the police, one of whom was armed with a T-56. One of the accused policemen admitted to his uncle (another policeman) that he had shot and killed the two victims.

The woman who had originally been harassed and lodged a complaint told the court she had been staying with her grandmother. The household had gone to sleep around 9.40pm and at about 10.15pm they had heard the sound of breaking glass. She told the court: “There was a young man outside in a black T-shirt and he wanted a cigarette.” He went away but returned with another young man. She claimed that one of them had later entered the house and held her hand. She woke up the others in the house and told them what had happened. At 11.30 pm they reported the incident to two officers at Angulana police station. She later told the court that she had identified the youths who harassed her as the victims of the double murder.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, national newspapers claimed the woman who made the complaint was OIC Newton’s mistress. The house she had been staying in was burnt down by an angry mob. However, she told the court she had never seen OIC Newton before the night of 12 August and said it was obvious that Newton had been drinking that evening.

In the post-GW Bush era US and UK politicians have acknowledged that talk of a “war on terrorism” has not been helpful. In Sri Lanka, buoyed by its success in the war against the LTTE, the government has announced a “war on crime”. Philippe Person recently examined in Le Monde diplomatique (“Clint: still good, bad and ugly”, English edition, August 2009) the symbolic resonance of Clint Eastwood. Clint was LTTE leader Prabakharan’s hero and seems to have many fans in the Sri Lanka police, at least in his Dirty Harry persona.

The past few weeks have seen key underworld figures (mostly Muslim, rather than Tamil or Sinhalese) being “taken out’”. Ordinary Sri Lankans have became accustomed to summary executions by shadowy death squads — echoes of the British government’s “shoot-to-kill policy” in Northern Ireland — as a way of defeating the Marxist JVP rebels who threatened to overthrow the government in the 1980s.

Even Sri Lankans who supported the government’s hard line against the LTTE are uncomfortable with current police behaviour: the phrase “culture of impunity” is frequently heard. No one wants to live in a country where the police can kill anyone they want, including private-grudge enemies, and get away with it. And there is a danger of police impunity being mirrored by vigilante justice by sections of the public.

The Angulana incident garnered a lot of publicity, and some have taken comfort from the fact that police were arrested and brought before a court. Yet hundreds of other incidents around the country may go unreported. The lawyer and human rights campaigner Basil Fernando had high hopes in 2003 of the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which included the setting up of a National Police Commission (NPC). He described the NPC as “one of the most extraordinary mechanisms created in Sri Lanka to check human rights violations.” Unfortunately the NPC has been allowed to wither and die, with its powers delegated to officials of various ministries, including defence.

President Rajapaksa, apparently disturbed that OIC Newton, and officers involved in other incidents, boasted of ties with politicians (including, some say, the president himself), summoned senior police to ask “how is all this police brutality eventually put into my account by the opposition?” Significantly, Rajapaksa did not meet the NPC, which had been designed to take the politics out of policing.” There is nostalgia for the original NPC, which was seen as having a clear vision about reform and how to implement it. Today oversight of the police is diffused piecemeal among government bureaucrats: so when people are victimised, they have no independent source of redress.

2 comments on « Dirty Harry in Sri Lanka »

  • # Arumugam Theva Rajan :
    16 September 2009 @00h32  
    Dirty Harry in Sri Lanka

    President Rajapakse does not want the NPC in place because they cannot keep the Police Department as a defence unit of the politicians – to wreak vengeance or hide their criminal activities. We know what happened to DIG Gunatiklake of the CID after President Rajapakse assumed Office. We know what happended to DIG Nalin Delgoda, a well known honest disciplined officer. We know how SSP Shanmugam had to stagger on due to a
    misjudgement that that he was partial towards one political party. He was an honest impartial officer. We know what happended to SSP Ambikapathy. A tough Policeman SSP Navaratnarajah could not become a DIG. A recruit ASP went outside his area and released a relative detained at a Police Station on charges of distilling illicit liquor and was dismissed. He manipulated politically and returned and was again dismissed on charges of releasing an accused from Police custody after getting sex gratification from the said suspect’s wife. He rose up to be a DIG. Another notorious sex maniac rose up to be a DIG having been saved every time by politicians. The Department is highly politicised and indisciplined. It does not mean that there are no independent disciplined Officers now. I know of a few. But their roles are curbed.

    A.Theva Rajan

  • # Padraig Colman :
    26 August 2011 @18h11  
    Dirty Harry in Sri Lanka…

    The policemen involved have been sentenced to death.

Rehabilitating the Tigers

Rehabilitating the Tigers

October 2009, by Padraig Colman

Five months on since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka is trying to come to terms with its post-war problems. Despite ongoing international concern over the plight of Tamil civilians in government-run camps, there are new signs of reconciliation. These are apparent in the way the authorities are dealing with former LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) rank and file members.

Measures have been taken to rehabilitate some 10,000 LTTE fighters – many of whom were forcibly conscripted by the separatist rebels. On 20 September the Justice and Law Reforms ministry announced a $23m programme called Reintegrating ex-LTTE Cadres into Civilian Life, in association with the International Organisation for Migration. The United States, Japan, Britain and India have promised financial assistance to the programme; Unicef and INGOs will be helping; and many big Sri Lankan companies have offered their support.

International concern

The concern over the situation of Tamil civilians still living in government-run camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), expressed by foreign governments, the UN and international NGOs, is genuine and justified. Some of it has been fuelled by Tamils living in the West, Malaysia and India – mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu where people take a keen interest in the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils, especially conditions in the IDP camps, and have demanded that the Sri Lankan government speed up the process of releasing the inmates.

Recently a delegation of 10 Tamil Nadu politicians visited the camps. On their return, they told the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, of the Sri Lankan government’s assurance that 58,000 IDPs would return to their homes in 15 days; they were told the government had also implemented a separate rehabilitation programme to re-integrate former LTTE cadres into civilian society.

In fact, even before the 20 September announcement, rehabilitation work had already begun. Major General Ratnayake, commissioner for rehabilitation, stated: “The process to classify the ex-cadres into different groups considering their age, gender and involvement in the LTTE has already been completed and the groundwork to move them into new rehabilitation centres is nearing completion.” He said over 80% of these ex-cadres, now sheltered in government schools, would be moved within a month into five new centres once construction is completed.

Children between 12 and 18 have been segregated from the rest of the group. (In the final stage of the war the LTTE forcibly recruited around 450 children, some as young as 12.) Female cadres (some 1,700) have also been separately housed. Males over 45 are to be given vocational training suited to their professions, skills and preferences. Young ex-LTTE cadres who had surrendered to the security forces have been undergoing rehabilitation in Jaffna.

A group of former LTTE child soldiers have had rehabilitation and vocational training in plumbing, masonry, carpentry and electrical work at state-run welfare centres, and have now been given overseas work visas by Sri Lanka and permits by Malaysia to work in construction there as practical preparation for their return to Sri Lanka.

Some of this training took place at Ambepussa Rehabilitation Centre. Uditha Jayasinghe described it for the Colombo newspaper The Bottom Line, writing about 28-year-old Dharshani, a qualified English teacher who became part of a suicide squad: “A few years after I started to teach, the LTTE passed a law saying that one person from each family must join their cause. I have a younger brother and sister. I didn’t want their lives wasted. So I went and joined instead to protect them.” Five of her colleagues died but she survived and surrendered. She is now using her teaching skills to rehabilitate traumatised children.

The National Child Protection Authority provides counsellors to assess the psychological needs of the children and monitor their progress. Therapy through art and dance helps to reduce the fits and recurring nightmares some children suffer.

Garment industry steps in

The garment firm Tri Star has, with government assistance, invested in a factory in Trincomalee which is expected to provide employment for 1,000 people from the area. The company has asked the government to let them train 500 young women who are currently in the IDP camps. After training, Tri Star will guarantee jobs in their own factories and will also award them certificates enabling them to get jobs elsewhere. They hope to have the opportunity to train former LTTE cadres. A spokesman said: “It does not matter whether they come from the IDP camps or rehabilitation camps for former LTTE cadres. What is important is that everybody is given a chance to grow in the new Sri Lanka.”

The Sri Lankan garment industry has carved itself an ethical niche in the world market because of its determined stance against sweat-shop practices. Through an initiative called Garments without Guilt, the industry has made a conscious effort to improve living standards in the local communities where its factories are located. Garments without Guilt looks after the welfare of its workers and their families, sets up programmes to empower women, builds eco-friendly factories, supports schools and hospitals, and enhances the local infrastructure. It also plans to build garment factories in the north and east of the country, which means improving roads, electricity and water supplies and providing for local communities through jobs, schools and hospitals.

The garment industry is anxious that the EU may withdraw tariff concessions because of what it sees as human rights violations by the Sri Lanka government. Businesses may fail and thousands lose their jobs. Sri Lanka has been successful in this market because of the ethical stance of the companies, helped by the government. It would be ironic if this progress were now to be thwarted.

Still the doubts remain

Despite these initiatives, many within Sri Lanka, as among the international community, doubt the sincerity of the government’s promises to release IDPs and are concerned at continuing emergency legislation.

Conditions in the camps were highlighted by an incident in the Menik Farm camp on 26 September when, according to the UNHCR, “several people are said to have been injured, including a child who was hit by a stray bullet and is now paralysed.”

Col R Hariharan, head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987-1990, believes the EU cannot ignore strong public opinion about Sri Lanka’s conduct. He says the government “has to come out with a list of LTTE cadres and camp followers in custody so that there is a record of who is where, lest further accusations of executions in custody pile up. These are basic norms of good governance and Sri Lanka is expected to adhere to them. These issues are gathering adverse international momentum and nothing convinces international community as much as visible results.”

Colonel Hariharan, who often writes in this vein in the Sri Lankan press, is not alone: there are many dissident voices within Sri Lanka who will not be silenced, and persist in challenging the government over the situation of the IDPs and its failure to release them, echoing the concerns expressed in the West. Many of them think the stories about re-integration of former

Tigers into society are simply window-dressing: they believe the government is not sincere in its promises to rehouse those in the IDP camps, and that it just does not have the capability to make good its promises.

Time will tell. As I write, the heavy rains are bringing my guttering crashing to the ground. What will it be like in the IDP camps?

4 comments on « Rehabilitating the Tigers »

  • # Padraig Colman :
    24 October 2009 @06h34  
    Rehabilitating the Tigers
    Update- on October 21 Ratmalana Hindu College inducted 144 former LTTE child soldiers, 81 boys and 63 girls, from Pumthottam Child Protection and rehabilitation Centre in Vavuniya. In a second phase of the induction programme, a further 141 will start at the school. The government has provided board and lodging, clothing and tuition. Parents will be allowed to visit.
  • # Marcela K :
    24 October 2009 @20h57  
    Rehabilitating the Tigers
    Government-run camps, war, children soldiers, cruelty, poverty, segregation… there is much to do in this world of ours. I hope these measures towards rehabilitation helps bring long-lasting peace in the region.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    29 October 2009 @06h13  
    Rehabilitating the Tigers

    Thank you Marcela.

    A recent newsletter from IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reports that thousands of jobs in Sri Lanka’s crucial textile industry are under threat following a European Union (EU) report over alleged human rights abuses including the and failure to implement human rights conventions in the country.

    As a result, a key trade concession worth more than US$100 million could be withdrawn, EU officials suggest.

    More than 250,000 people are employed in the garment industry – a sector accounting for 10 percent of GDP.

    “I really don’t know much about GSP+,” Anusha Kumari, 29, a factory worker at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone, one of 12, with more than 100,000 employees, told IRIN.

    “But we are nervous about what we hear and read in newspapers, that it can be removed and factories will close,” she said.

    Achila Mapalagama, head of Stand-up, an activist group, said there were fears that withdrawal of GSP+ could affect 50,000 jobs.

    Sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq killed thousands of innocent children. Reconciliation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka, whatever the crimes of the government, will not be helped by the EU withdrawing tariff concessions to the Sri Lanka garment industry, which itself is committed to ethical business practices.

  • # horizon fitness ex-57 elliptical trainer :
    27 April 2011 @12h31  
    Rehabilitating the Tigers
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Nationalism is the culprit

Exclusive July 2009, by Padraig Colman

One of the comments on my previous article on Sri Lanka for Le Monde diplomatique’s blog was: “Please write objectively on other conflicts too.”

So here I’d like to discuss the concept of revenge, and reflect on how the legitimate fight for human rights can transmute into terrorism when tainted by perverted fantasies of nationalism.

The non-violent civil-rights protests in Northern Ireland were hi-jacked by the Provisional IRA who appointed themselves protectors of the Catholic community and hitched the issue to their own nationalist agenda of a united Ireland.

Is there an inevitable regression from Northern Irish Catholics suffering discrimination, to innocent English (and Irish) people being blown to giblets while enjoying a drink with friends?

In Sri Lanka, militant separatism gained strength and developed into terrorism when Tamils’ grievances were not addressed through the normal democratic process. Inaction by successive governments led to action by militants which led to reaction from the ill-disciplined and ineffective security forces. Like the Black and Tans in Ireland, who burned villages in reprisal for rebel actions, Sri Lankan soldiers responded to the killing of comrades by killing innocents. The horrific anti-Tamil violence of July 1983 accelerated the emigration of Tamils from Sri Lanka, which in turn strengthened the position of the LTTE against other Tamil groups because of diaspora funding.

Where is the proportionality between unfair university admission quotas and a 30-year war and 100,000 dead? What was the connection between discrimination against Tamils and extortion and drug trading? How did the Sinhala-only policy lead to the assassination of Tamil politicians and the maiming of small children? How can a recurrence of such conflict be prevented?

“Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent”. Slavko Goldstein wrote that in his book, 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning. Goldstein is a Croatian Jew and describes the ethnic tensions during the second world war in former Yugoslavia. Goldstein’s father, who was a communist as well as a Jew, was taken away by the Ustashi, the ruling elite of the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, and never seen again.

The Ustashi began rounding up Serbs in April 1941. Extermination camps were set up in the woods and ravines of the Velebit Mountains. One camp at Jadnovno lasted 55 days and held 4,000 Serbs and Jews. Of those, 3,999 were killed (one escaped) by taking them to the edge of a pit where they were bludgeoned with sledgehammers and axes. These events were remembered in the 1990s when Milosevic, in his push for a Greater Serbia, massacred Muslims and Croats.

The poet, Charles Simic comments: “Once more, the culprit was nationalism, that madness of identifying with a single ethnic group to a point where one recognises no other duty other than furthering its interests even if it means placing its actions beyond good and evil. Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble cause naive and repugnant”.

Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future.” Or, in the words of Ernest Gellner: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” Paul Ignotus, meanwhile, wrote of Hungary: “A nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.”

Irish historians like Roy Foster have deconstructed their nation’s foundation myths: “The construction of ‘advanced’ Irish nationalism at home relied on buttressing from abroad, and so did the creation of Irish identity.” As large and influential Irish communities were established in the US and Britain, the Irish diaspora kept alive the fairy tales. Sinister men rattled collection boxes in north London pubs “for the boys”. Americans dreamed about their romantic Irish roots and gave money to Noraid for IRA arms.

Nationalists in Ceylon such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Sinhalese Buddhist thinkers such as Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama thero and the Tamil disciple of William Morris, Ananda Coomaraswamy, wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Another Sinhalese, Anagarika Dharmapala, wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber… We were a great people”. The Tamil political leader, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”

Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said: “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it.”

Sinhalese and Tamils, just like the Irish and countless other “nationalities”, delude themselves with the false memory syndrome of ancient glories and rights, which, unfortunately, are too often defined by hatred of “the other”.

The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Filmmakers’ answer seems to be to return harm to those who harmed. Movies seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Armchair warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie, the pain of the wounded and incarcerated a matter relevant to their own egos. Action and reaction – will the cycle never be broken?

Debates on blogs often generate more heat than light. One despairs about reconciliation in Sri Lanka when one reads comments like this: “While you are at the praying mood also pray that the Transnational Tamils will be merciful on the Sinhalese when they are done with the ground work for a bigger and more deadlier struggle against you, your racist Sinhalese sisters and brothers led by your majesty the King Mahinda”. Tough guy at the keyboard without even good grammar!

On the other side there are many expressions by bloggers of distasteful Sinhalese triumphalism.

In 1938 the Irish nationalist, Stephen Gwynn, wrote: “We know in Ireland, and probably they know in Poland, in Slovakia and in Russia, and in a score of other countries where revolution has succeeded, what is the cost of victorious hate.”

There comes a time when truth and reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. Sectarian killings in Northern Ireland sporadically continued long after the IRA gave up their arms, but peace now seems the norm. Only this week loyalist paramilitaries announced that they had renounced violence (tell that to the Roma that they terrorised into leaving Ireland).

In Sri Lanka, the grievances are still present and sharp and will take skilful and sensitive action by the victorious and currently popular government to manage.

Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Will Sri Lankans be able to forget the many horrors of recent decades and forge a new nation combining all cultural histories as successfully as the Sri Lankan cricket team?

Sri Lanka: concentration camps or welfare centres ?

Sri Lanka: concentration camps or welfare centres ?

Exclusive August 2009, by Padraig Colman

Now that the war is over we are getting very contradictory reports on the situation in Sri Lanka. On 8 August Amnesty International criticised the Sri Lanka government for forcibly confining internally displaced people (IDPs) in camps. Meanwhile the Centre for Policy Alternatives has presented a petition to the government saying that 300,000 civilians are being detained illegally. The former chief justice Sarath Silva fears that the continuing confinement of Tamils could cause a new war.

Sections of the Tamil diaspora have described the camps as being part of a genocidal agenda. The government calls the camps “welfare centres”. Critics call them “concentration camps”.

A group of volunteers summarised their observations after visiting the camps. They said that:

- many families have relatives to go to but are kept in the camps;
- families are separated in different zones;
- the camps are administered by armed military personnel;
- and they concluded that aid agencies should be able to talk to the displaced.

The editor of The Hindu, N Ram, described Menik Farm: “Conditions in these camps are much better than has been depicted, without visiting the camps, in western media reports. Moreover, they are visibly better than conditions in Sri Lankan refugee camps in India, which are still mostly inaccessible to journalists, researchers, and other outsiders.” This is not to say that Menik Farm is a Club Mediterranée, but it isn’t Belsen either. I was surprised to read that in April, before the war was over, banks had set up ATMs in the camps. The Sri Lankan government is meeting basic needs, including education for schoolchildren and vocational training for youths.

However, the Tamil News says that according to “reliable sources”, foreigners are being misled by being shown the better facilities.

Laurent Sury, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières, observes that “with such a large number of people concentrated together, there is always the risk of waterborne disease with the rains.” The World Health Organisation says no large outbreaks of disease have been reported so far, although there is a risk of malaria and diarrhoea, and now there are worries about skin diseases.

Meanwhile an Indian medical team arrived in Sri Lanka on 10 March and set up a hospital in Pulmoddai in the Trincomalee district to receive IDPs being brought by Red Cross ships from the areas held by the LTTE. India now feels that conditions have improved sufficiently to withdraw by the end of August.

Security concerns

Adnan Khan, country director of the World Food Programme, confirms that “food supplies have never been affected by access restrictions.” He said his people were able to move freely within the camps.

One of the reasons given for holding people in the camps and restricting access was to weed out hard-core LTTE fighters. Interhamwe infiltration and intimidation was a serious problem in the camps housing Rwandan refugees in Goma. There have been reports of LTTE posters appearing in the Sri Lankan camps.

The army is finding large stores of weapons, ammunition and explosives hidden by the LTTE and expects to recover more. Vavuniya District Tamil National Alliance MP, S Kishor, said he was aware that around 50,000 IDPs have escaped from welfare camps by paying money to police and army personnel. Defence chief Gotabhaya Rajapaksa warned this could be a part of a strategy to revive the LTTE.

Many of us living in Sri Lanka feared that, despite the defeat of the LTTE, children traveling to school on buses or people buying food in markets would continue to be maimed and killed. A friend who was often vehement in her criticism of the president said: “I thank the president for finishing off the LTTE, who did nothing for the Tamils here. They represented the Tamils overseas. I thank the president because we do not hear of any deaths anymore due to bombs. What a relief that is to those of us who live here.”


The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which IDPs fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. India has already sent de-mining experts and the UK has promised £500,000 to the Mines Advisory Group.

Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided: the LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure. The government plans to resettle at least 80% of those in the camps by the end of the year and rehabilitate over 10,000 ex-LTTE cadres and thousands of families who had direct contacts with the LTTE.

The UNHCR described a previous resettlement of 2,231 to seven villages in the Musali division in the southern part of Mannar district, which at one time was controlled by the LTTE: “The government has applied good practices in IDP return…The process was carried out in safety and dignity.”

On 9 June, 2,120 Tamils and Muslims were re-settled. At the end of June, some 9,000 people aged 60 or more were allowed to leave the camps and join their relatives. On 5 August, 1,100 people boarded 70 buses to return to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in areas where de-mining, reconstruction of roads, supply of electricity and water were already completed. “I’m happy to go back to my own house. I never thought that we would be able to resettle in such a short period,” P Sundaralingam told Reuters in Jaffna.

The Canadian minister Bev Oda was encouraged by what she saw in the camps. “This is not an ideal situation,” she said but “I would say that in partnership with international organisations, the government of Sri Lanka is making very good efforts to meet the basic needs.’’ The Tamil journalist DB Jeyaraj writes: “I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see those caught up in a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings.”

What the Tigers Mean for India

What the Tigers mean for India

This article was published on Le Monde diplomatique in May 2009

As Tamil Nadu goes to the polls, there are fears that the Tamil Tigers will regroup in the Indian state and add to insecurity in the subcontinent
May 2009, by Padraig Colman

India and Sri Lanka have both been holding elections. Although India is touted as the world’s largest democracy and Sri Lanka praised for peaceful handovers of power since independence in 1948, elections in both countries have potential for violence, and their politics are intertwined. The Sri Lanka government believes it is close to securing a military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who have been engaged in a bloody struggle since 1983 to achieve a separate Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

As the Indian state of Tamil Nadu goes to the polls on 13 May, its chief minister M Karunanidhi and opposition leader Jeyaram Jayalalitha are trying to outdo each other in support for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Jayalalitha has vowed that if she becomes Tamil Nadu’s chief minister again she will use her influence to send Indian troops into Sri Lanka to create a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

Although the Sinhalese are the majority in Sri Lanka, they have a minority complex: Tamil may be the language of just 11% of the population (of 20 million), but there are more than 62 million Tamil speakers just across the Palk Straits in India.

Meanwhile Tamil Nadu itself has long been fractious, and the Sri Lankan situation has a destabilising effect on its polity: many Indians in Tamil Nadu support the Sri Lankan separatist militants. Continuing civilian casualties in northern Sri Lanka have led to violent protests in Tamil Nadu, and immolations and hunger strikes. Chief Minister Karunanidhi himself went on a brief hunger strike (described as a fast from breakfast to lunch rather than a fast unto death).

Over the years, India has not just played a passive role in Sri Lankan affairs. Its intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), trained Sri Lankan Tamil militants at a RAW base in Uttar Pradesh in 1983. Arms deliveries to various Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups began in 1984.

In 1982, exiled LTTE leader V Prabakharan had been arrested in Madras, when he was captured by a mob after a shootout with a rival militant. The Sri Lankan authorities were overjoyed that the man they had hunted for seven years for the murder of the mayor of Jaffna was now in custody.

Tamil Nadu’s chief minister was then the former film star MG Ramachandran. He and (current chief minister) Karunanidhi, another graduate of the film industry, were old rivals who saw the Eelam campaign in terms of their own electoral advantage. They used their influence to ensure that Prabakharan was not extradited to Sri Lanka and that the Indian government continued to support the separatist militants.

However, the Indian government discovered that the Sri Lankan militants it harboured were not easy to control. After Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her son Rajiv followed different advice and tried to mediate. Initially the atmosphere between the two nations improved and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987, which led to the Indian army operating in northern Sri Lanka. India then expected the LTTE to hand over its arms, but the LTTE resisted efforts by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to disarm them: the LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese. The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but, with unexpected resistance from the LTTE, the number increased to 100,000. The LTTE took control of Jaffna and set about eliminating their Tamil rivals.

The Indian intervention was unpopular with the Sinhalese. As well as fighting Tamil rebels in the north, the government was simultaneously dealing with an uprising by Marxist Sinhalese nationalists in the south.

The LTTE refused to accept Rajiv Gandhi’s framework for an honourable peace. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he became president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased and Premadasa continued to press for the withdrawal of the IPKF. This was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indiansoldiers had been killed and more than 2,000 wounded; the financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25bn.

Indira Gandhi had been the architect of India’s interventionist policy but her son Rajiv paid the ultimate price: on 21 May 1991 he was killed by a female Tiger. India’s Supreme Court ruled that the killing was carried out on Prabakharan’s orders. Four conspirators were sentenced to death (in absentia); Prabakharan is still wanted by India.

The interim report of the Jain Commission recommended that Karunanidhi, as chief minister, and his DMK party be held responsible for abetting Rajiv’s murderers. But the final report contained no such allegations. And, in a fine irony, the current leader of the Congress Party is Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, nd the Congress government now has Karunanidhi as an ally.

Indian support

India has recently been supporting the Sri Lankan government and supplied it with radar equipment (cynical Sri Lankans say it wasn’t good enough to stop the Tigers’ air raids). India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators. India has supplied 120,000 family packs and 1,680 tonnes of food products to displaced civilians.

It has also sent a 62-member medical team, with medicines and equipment, to cater to the urgent medical requirement of injured and sick civilians being evacuated out of the conflict zone through the sea route. The team has eight doctors plus paramedical staff, and the Indian hospital there has treated over 2,500 serious cases so far, most of them surgical cases. The Indian government has promised its help in the reconstruction and reconciliation process when the war is over and will soon send de-mining teams to Sri Lanka to help civilians return to their homes. But there are fears that the LTTE will now regroup in Tamil Nadu causing continuing discord there and posing another threat to India’s security – coming on top of the activities of militant groups throughout the country and cross-border terrorism in the northwest complicated by the uneasy relationship with Pakistan.

2 comments on « What the Tigers mean for India »

  • # Richard Neva :
    25 February 2010 @03h23  
    What the Tigers mean for India
    You must see the film “The Terrorist” for a sensitive look at a woman terrorist. Like all of these movements there are two sides to each party’s intentions. It pays to study both or at least consider both sides, that is what educated people do before they toss a bomb.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    1 May 2010 @10h01  
    What the Tigers mean for India
    Thank you for your comment, Richard. I will look out for that film. “It pays to study both or at least consider both sides, that is what educated people do before they toss a bomb”. I am not sure I understand what you mean by that. Can you clarify? Generally speaking it would probably best for educated people not to toss bombs and considering both sides before doing so seems a bit irrelevant when it comes to things on the scale of tossing bombs. I’m puzzled.
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