Sri Lanka’s Way Forward
Sri Lanka’s way forward
On 18 May 2009 the body of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), was found at Nandi Kadal lagoon in northern Sri Lanka. Rajavarothaya Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), called for 18 May to be a day of mourning. Instead, it will be commemorated as Victory Day.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) claims in its 17 May 2010 report that it has new evidence of war crimes (1) committed by the government and the LTTE. Those defending the government claim the evidence against the government was faked by the LTTE as part of their propaganda campaign (2).
When the government embarked on a military response to the LTTE’s violent struggle for a Tamil state within Sri Lanka many doubted the project’s feasibility. In the past year there have been no terrorist incidents whatever; and the mood of the country was reflected in a 60% vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2010 presidential election and an almost two-thirds parliamentary majority for the government in April.
Rajapaksa, who only narrowly won the 2005 election, now seems to enjoy an unassailable position. His elder brother Chamal is speaker of parliament; younger brother Basil is economics minister; another brother Gotabhaya is defence minister; and his son Namal has been elected to parliament and is clearly being groomed for high office. Pessimists warned that too much power was accruing to the Rajapaksa family (it is rumoured that constitutional reforms will allow Rajapaksa to be president for life, voters permitting) and that a weakened opposition had no power to persuade the government to address Tamil grievances.
What were these grievances? Over many years ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals on Tamil civilians, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland. In July 1983 thirteen soldiers were killed by the LTTE. Ten days of rioting left 3,000 dead and 200,000 displaced. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country. Many fled abroad and funded the LTTE; Sri Lanka achieved pariah status internationally.
The pressure for a separate Tamil state had been building from 1956. The British had allegedly favoured Tamils, and Sinhalese sought affirmative action to redress this. The historian Kingsley de Silva described the Tamils as a minority with a majority complex and the Sinhalese as a majority with a minority complex.
Prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike made Sinhala the sole national language and quotas increased the proportion of Sinhalese in the universities, civil service and professions. Sinhalisation of the entire administration and political machinery, even in the areas where Tamils predominated, led to a strengthening of Tamil identity politics.
Frustration with peaceful politics led to violence. Sinhalese-dominated governments contributed to worsening tensions. The first Republican constitution in 1972 consolidated the status of the Sinhala language and elevated Buddhism to the status of “foremost among religions”.
At the war’s end, government forces were accused of shelling hospitals and killing innocent civilians. The government in turn claimed the LTTE were using civilians as human shields. Around 300,000 civilians were held in what were called “welfare camps” by the government and “extermination camps” by the Tamil diaspora.
Today, Tamil is an official language, but this needs to implemented and Tamil-speaking officials need to be recruited quickly to the public service throughout the nation. Tamils have been queuing up in Jaffna to join the police force.
It is worrying that recent elections have left Tamils under-represented in mainstream politics and this could lead to frustration and a return to arms.
The government is now being criticised for releasing displaced people from the camps because they have no homes or jobs to go to. A former LTTE fighter, Karuna, who is now Deputy Minister for Resettlement, is seeking help from the international community to redress a shortage of building materials.
The de facto state operated by the LTTE did nothing to improve or even maintain the infrastructure. There are anxieties that rebuilding the north and east will make southern carpetbaggers rich and the “Tamil homeland” will be colonised, leaving the inhabitants in poverty.
The Tamil journalist DBS Jeyaraj wrote: “The future and well- being of the Tamil people are inextricably intertwined with that of Sri Lanka and its people. All future efforts to secure rights and share power have to be within the unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.”
A separate state is no longer on the agenda of Tamils actually living in Sri Lanka. Members of formerly separatist parties – EPDP, TULF and PLOTE – have condemned the setting up of a “transnational government” abroad.
The president has announced the establishment of a commission to investigate possible war crimes. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch is not impressed, seeing it as a diversionary tactic to deflect efforts by the UN to conduct an independent investigation.
India continues to exert pressure to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and devolve power to the provinces. The government does not openly resist (although many see serious flaws in the devolution idea).
The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) drafted reforms to ensure stability and growth. Dr Colin Irwin of Liverpool University made an important contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. He has been surveying reactions to the APRC proposals throughout Sri Lanka. Irwin’s latest survey (3) found the proposals are acceptable to Sinhalese, northern and eastern Tamils, Up-Country Tamils and Muslims. Even the “significant minority of Tamils from the Northern Province” who still want to keep the “right to secession” will give this up for the complete package of APRC reforms. There are still concerns about the special status of Buddhism.
Irwin comments: “The results for the test of the APRC proposals in Sri Lanka are certainly as good as if not better than the results for the Belfast Agreement poll, and in Northern Ireland the people were able to make peace on the strength of those results”
As Irwin puts it, now is the time for Sri Lankans of all races to be “taking their rightful place as a prosperous, vibrant island nation in a region of the world where economic success can only be held back by instability or despotism.”
It would be good if substantial numbers of the Tamil diaspora could bring their many talents back to Sri Lanka and help rebuild the nation rather than picking over the scabs of grievances, however real and however recent, and persisting in the futile and fatal encouragement of separatist militancy.
The president has not been proactive in the past about the APRC proposals. It would be a better use of the public relations skills of the Tamil diaspora and the international community to exert pressure to implement them rather than continuing a possibly bloody quest for the chimera of Tamil Eelam.