Sri Lanka: Tamil Struggle Continues
Tamil protestor in London
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Sri Lanka: Tamil Struggle Continues


Just over two months ago, the Tamils went to the polls for Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council elections with defiance, yet with a cautious sense of festivity. Military harassment of voters and party candidates had been thorough and brutally innovative throughout the campaigning; in addition to the typical battering of election monitors, cash-for-votes and widespread intimidation, government supporters had even printed a fake newspaper.

The night of Election Day, one retired man from Jaffna would not dare predict the polling results. If the Tamil National Alliance won, there might be retribution, he said; destroyed cars, people beaten up and houses set on fire. Yet, if they lost, the military violence already in place might never end. For now, the elections themselves – the first in 25 years – were reason enough to celebrate, he said cheerfully, showing a small bottle of arrack – local coconut spirit – in his pocket.

Then, against all the odds, the TNA won a landslide victory, with 30 out of 38 seats on an unexpectedly high voter turnout.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The dream of an independent Tamil Eelam may be dead, but for many northern Tamils the provincial elections in the northeast had opened another narrow window of opportunity to claim the equal rights they have struggled to win for so long. Though primarily a symbolic defeat for the central government, the TNA’s success had also reignited hope that now – finally – the Tamils might have a chance at the reconciliation that, four years after the end of the Eelam IV war, has failed to materialize.

If expectations are now dashed by the Rajapaksa regime, a return to violence might be inevitable. “If it continues to close off avenues of peaceful change, the risks of violent reaction will grow,” concluded a November report by the International Crisis Group, titled Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace: Democracy Under Fire, ominously. After a visit to the country during the run up to the elections, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay Navi Pillay warned that Sri Lanka seemed to be heading in “increasingly authoritarian direction,” and that it must be remembered that “although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.”

While demanding federalism and not secession (“something like Quebec,” one TNA MP explained), the TNA have continuously reiterated that they will fight for it without violence. The stakes are high; the costs of a political breakdown risk falling somewhere between cultural genocide of the Tamils and a return to civil war.

While the war is over and the Tamil Tigers have been jubilantly crushed by the government forces, the north remains heavily militarized and for many residents, the violence isn’t over. In the villages, widows sleep in groups at night to escape nightly army harassment. White vans continue to pick up designated state enemies and journalists for unknown destinations. In Jaffna alone, over 2000 court cases alleging land grabs by the government are pending. Buddhist shrines have mushroomed in the region in an alleged gradual Sinhalization of the northeast. And while the government has finally admitted that its shelling operations during the final stage of the war caused some “collateral damage,” its estimates of civilian deaths come nowhere near the United Nations’ 40,000.

“How could the peace last, when none of the root causes of the conflict have been removed?” wondered a member of the diaspora. In the Vanni too, many residents expressed doubt the peace would be sustainable – if it could indeed be called peace at all.

For those who lived through it, the scars of the 26-year war have not healed. The night after the election, children flinched at the distant blasts from celebratory firecrackers. Now and then, leftover shells still detonate in the fields around the villages, and when one does, they fling themselves instinctively to the ground. Navi Pillay had noted the desperate need for “psychosocial“ support and expressed concern that counseling remained illegal. One man, who counsels in secret, described how parents, unable to express their grief, fainted at the mere mention of their dead children. Local NGOs report growing drinking problems and high suicide rates.

“Restorative, not retributive justice” has been the regime’s official line since the end of the war, but that catchphrase might make far more sense for those on the winning side. According to a recent poll by the Colombo-based* Centre for Policy Alternatives, 26.5 percent of respondents from Tamil communities thought that the government had done “nothing” to address the underlying causes of the conflict while 50 percent said efforts were insufficient.

“The government is building all of these tarmac roads to cover up the war,” said one TNA voter. “But that’s not what the people need. They want justice.”

To the extent it has even tried, the Rajapaksa regime has taken a peculiar approach to reconciliation. While the leadership insists that the process needs to happen without outside interference, even many of the recommendations of its own widely criticized Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission have not been implemented. Far from demilitarizing, the army has doubled in size since the end of the war. The military’s heavy involvement in the development sector has been hailed as a new peace-building model, even as locals say the army has hijacked the role from civil society. Last week, the regime demonstrated its own understanding of peaceful coexistence when it arrested award-winning Tamil Poet Shanmugampillai Jayapalan on the grounds of “disrupting ethnic harmony” as he returned from exile in Norway to visit his mother’s grave.

Rather than the six-lane highways and a nascent tourism sector offered by the government, the Northern electorate voted for the TNA’s manifesto promises on land rights, an end to the military occupation and demands for an independent, international investigation of the final stages of the war. The success of the TNA in addressing these concerns may in part be what makes or breaks Sri Lanka’s delicate post-war stability.

Now, two months after those provincial elections, it seems unlikely that the government will allow the TNA victory to be the game changer the Tamil communities had sought. Under the constitution’s contentious 13th Amendment, introduced through the 1987 Indo-Lankan Accords, the provincial councils have limited powers – notably over land and police – which the TNA had hoped to use as a starting point for meaningful federalism. Yet, despite initial promises to go “beyond” the 13th Amendment, the Rajapaksa regime quickly tried to scale back the council’s influence. Adding to its difficulties, the TNA is also at the mercy of a center-appointed provincial governor and the central government’s discretion as to funding.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief