ECONOMYNEXT – So it is Sri Lanka’s 73rd Independence Day and what have got eleven years after the separatist war ended but continuing contestations between communities although the guns are now silent.
The major issues that caused the devastating 30-year civil war remain to be resolved and the current government’s policies, pandering to its Sinhala Buddhist majority base is eroding even the tentative steps towards reconciliation that the last government took.
Today the decorations will be up and Sri Lanka’s military will take centre-stage with a scaled-down march past and the National Anthem will be sung but in Sinhala only.
The Maithripala Sirisena administration had the anthem sung in both National languages but ever since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won office Tamil has been omitted.
In the East, the Tamil National Alliance, led by some of its Parliamentarians began a march from Potuvil protesting what they call are the violation of minority rights in the North and East of the country.
These two incidents show that the political contest between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils has not ended.
We may not be pointing Kalashnikov assault rifles at each other, but despite the carnage on both sides of the divide for more than 30-years, we are yet to find true peace.
We, as pioneer peace researcher John Galtung would say, are in a state of “Negative Peace,” where there is an absence of active hostilities but no real efforts at peacebuilding.
The current government, dominated at the centre of power by the men who gained fame and recognition as the military leadership that defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) want to carry on with their triumphalism.
This government, therefore, is blocking even the small, tentative steps taken towards reconciliation and a lasting peace attempted by the last government by overtly causing issues that push back at the reforms.
For those who subscribe to the Sinhala Buddhist supremacy theory, and they are the main backers of the current government, reconciliation is akin to a dirty word.
Tamil National Alliance Member of Parliament M A Sumanthiran told reporters in Potuvil as their march began that they want to draw attention to the Government’s constant restrictions placed on minorities, land grabbing in the North, the continuing detention of Tamil political prisoners under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and all other human rights violations in the country.
There is agreement amongst most scholars that the end of the armed conflict does not necessarily mean that all other issues have been ironed out. Some claim the disputes between the two communities go back to the pre-independence era, and that it is not something that happened after February 4, 1948. The issue that has plagued this country all these years between the minority communities and the majority Sinhalese was about the identity of the State and that of political power.
The Tamil community has always felt that political power centred around the Central government, dominated by members of the Sinhala community, would negatively impact them, and deny their right to make decisions on matters that affect their daily lives. They would, the Tamils believed, be completely dependent on the central government for everything.
They point out that initially, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress had joined the United National Party government which was formed soon after independence was won, but that, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi had split from the ACTC, on differences that arose over the citizenship Act.
That Act stripped citizenship rights from the Indian origin Tamils. It took many years for those who remained on the island to be finally recognised as Sri Lankans although generations had been born here. But that was not before a lot of heart-ache and fear that any stateless individual undergoes. There were pacts drawn up between the two countries, leading to dislocation of families who were required to choose in which country they wanted to live.
This incident caused the Tamils in the North and East to distrust a Sinhala majority government in Colombo and opened the way for the secessionists among the Tamils to gain ground. The Citizenship Act and the Sinhala only Act were both seen as examples that infringed upon the rights of the minorities.
Successive governments have helped fester the wounds of the non-Sinhalese. Actions of the then UNP government led to various violations, including the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, the pride and joy of many a Tamil, and culminated with the riots of July 1983. Sparked off by the killing of several military personnel in the North, by separatist Tamil groups, the simmering tensions between the two communities finally came to a head, resulting in a permanent rift.
This created the monstrous LTTE which subjugated the Tamil civilians living in areas in their control in the most brutal manner. Children were abducted, bombs strapped on to their backs and made to run at the Army frontlines in the North. Young women were turned into living bombs to assassinate people striking terror all over the land.
The LTTE constantly used the people whom they said they were fighting for as human shields, even at the end on the sands of Mullivaikkal.
Though many may believe the rift could be easily fixed, the issue is far more complex. Unfortunately, the present government believes that economic upliftment of the people in the North and East is the answer. But that alone will never resolve the matter. As long as economic solutions allow the Centre to have more power, the unresolved issues that affect equality of all ethnicities will not be put to rest. It will be easy to stoke feelings of resentment.
The end of the shooting war also brought into focus other issues especially on accountability and justice, the militarization of the north and the east, displacement and acute poverty.
But democratisation and treating all citizens as equals seem to be furthest in the minds of those who walk the corridors of power.
On the one hand, we have seen many issues arise that the Tamil community feels strongly about. Earlier this year we saw the destruction of a memorial built at the University of Jaffna in memory of those who died in the last years of the war.
On the other hand, is the government’s stubborn stand on insisting all corpses of the Covid dead must be cremated refusing to listen to the pleas of the Muslim community that it goes against their beliefs. Appeals from local and world leaders have fallen on deaf ears.
Just a few days ago, there was an article on a website implying that the country’s cricket team was being Christianised. This same was charge was repeated in a television discussion on the country’s most popular TV channel by a well-known Buddhist Monk.
Such action just helps make communities that are numerically smaller feel powerless and it is this feeling of helplessness that drives conflict and alienation.
And for those who have been working for decades to bring about reconciliation, such incidents just make their work all the more harder.
One such is the initiative led by Galkande Dhammananda Thero in the Kebithigollawa area, in the so-called “border region,” which was the scene of a massacre in June 2006 where some 68 adults and children were killed when claymore mines hit a bus.
International investigators blamed the LTTE for the attack, and for the past few years, Dhammananda and a team from the Kelaniya University have been working to help a Tamil school and a Sinhala school in the area to bring them together, to learn from each other and build solidarity.
“The Tamil community has been very responsive but the Sinhalese are more reluctant,” Dhammananda from the Walpola Rahula Institute told EconomyNext.
Another initiative is Voices of Peace where ex-combatants on both sides tell their stories. Academic and humanitarian worker Sarah Kabir’s book collated these stories where a group of fighters tell their tales.
“As storytellers share their truths and narratives, the hope is that readers rethink the conflict and challenge entrenched beliefs,” Kabir notes in her book.
It isn’t easy though. The reality is that ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka will take a long time, there is too much mistrust and hurt on all sides.
The best thing to do in the short run is to not make it worse, but unfortunately, the government’s actions run contrary to that. (Colombo, February 3, 2021)
By Arjuna Ranawana