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Sri Lanka: Tamil Struggle Continues

With the Rajapaksa regime intransigent, Tamils hope that foreign pressure can provide the impetus for change.

By Kim Wall for
Sri Lanka: Tamil Struggle Continues

Tamil protestor in London

Credit: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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.

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.”

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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.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has his own reasons to reject any Tamil aspirations of greater autonomy. Under the strong influence of Sinhala chauvinists, and with the defeat of the LTTE as its raison d’être, the Rajapaksa family regime cannot afford to be seen as doves. The leadership’s credibility hinges on a contradictory rhetoric; simultaneously triumphant over having annihilated the Tigers yet also scaremongering about surviving LTTE cadres trying to regroup. This paradox has lent the military its legitimacy and justified its growing presence throughout the country. It also means that any compromise leading to the necessary devolution might be seen as a weakness.

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At the same time, the regime’s days may be numbered if it does not allow for democratization and reform. Public disillusion is mounting across communal lines, and it is not only the northern Tamils who long for political alternatives. Other communities are under attack too: Christians and Muslims have increasingly become targets for the army and militant Buddhists. Such trends are only likely to unify opposition against the government party and may soon catalyze a renewed Tamil-Muslim alliance. And August’s Weliweriya incident, in which at least three unarmed Sinhala protesters were killed, became a wakeup call for many Sinhalese that they, too, are not immune to military oppression. In whispers, even members of the military have expressed deep disillusion with the government. Despite an iron-grip on the media, the warlike rhetoric of the Rajapaksa family may no longer be the propaganda tool it once was. Soon, perhaps, it might not only be the Tamil communities who long to shake up the status quo.

Unfortunately, the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) seems a strong indicator that the government is not ready to embrace change. The extraordinary arrogance displayed throughout the event – police beatings of protestors and a TNA politician, harassment of journalists, and politicians lashing out at foreign delegates – may have given the impression that the regime does not care about its international reputation. Yet if it did not care, the CHOGM would not have been the Rajapaksas’ priority in the first place. Neither would Sri Lanka have held the provincial elections, nor allowed Navi Pillay’s devastating fact-finding mission earlier this fall. Now that the CHOGM spectacle has ended up as a PR disaster, the Tamil communities’ greatest hope is that the world will continue to watch.

“The political situation is so bad,” an older women, who after being displaced several times is now working in Jaffna to support her orphaned nieces, had said just before the polls. “We all hope that the foreigners put pressure on the regime. It’s our only chance, because here, we can’t open our mouths at all.”

The regime’s unveiling of its true colors during the CHOGM might soon come back to haunt the Rajapaksas, as alleged war crimes are set to be debated in the UNHRC in March. With even China speaking out about Sri Lanka’s human rights record in recent days, President Rajapaksa may find himself not only cornered politically at home, but increasingly isolated diplomatically too.

At the same time, the Rajpaksas’ missteps make TNA appear an ever more moderate and pragmatic alternative, despite some past ties to rebels groups. In a country where governance has become synonymous with corruption and nepotism, the TNA under Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran seems a breath of fresh air. The retired Supreme Court judge has been hailed as one of the country’s most brilliant legal minds, and after his meeting with Cameron last week, he has reportedly been invited to 10 Downing Street to continue discussions. Still possessing the credibility the government desperately lacks, the TNA may even have potential to help Sri Lanka’s communities overcome lingering fears and suspicions.

When Tamil voters cast their ballots in September, some expressed hope that the TNA could one day be a vehicle for an autonomous Eelam state. While this may remain a pipe dream, a meaningful reconciliation process, political participation and full rights could be the next best thing.

To get even there the TNA will have to pull off an extraordinary balancing act. While segments of the diaspora accuse it of being too lenient, hawkish elements in the central government try to discredit it with accusations that it is an LTTE proxy. Any TNA success will depend on support from the international community to pressure the central government to keep its promises of reform and reconciliation. The diaspora too has an important role to play: not only to continue putting pressure on leaders, but also as a vital source of investment for the TNA, should the central government decide to pull the plug on funds.

Still, the TNA may mark a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s history. Now, at least, there must be a dialogue. This is the most promising assessment of the TNA’s victory: Sri Lanka’s Tamils have been given a moderate voice for the first time in decades. Washing off the terrorist stigma for once and for all has not been easy for any proponents of the Tamil cause, but the TNA has managed remarkably well to establish itself as a peaceful embodiment of the struggle.

”We have tried everything to fight for the Tamil cause,” another voter remarked the day after the polls, cautiously optimistic. ”First we tried peacefully for thirty years. Then, with the Tigers, we tried with violence for another thirty years. Now finally we have a third way – the letter of the law.”

With luck and a great deal of international support, this third way seems to offer Sri Lanka’s beleaguered minorities their best chance.

Kim Wall is a Columbia graduate and journalist. Formerly a reporter for the South China Morning Post. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Independent and the BBC.

*Corrected from “Jaffna-based”.