‘Neighbours’, but so what?

by Ashanthi

(August 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) On 25th Anniversary of Black July, the article examines Sri Lankan inter-ethnic relations and the potential for a repeat of Black July.

One oft-asserted claim in reference to Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis and especially the Tamil demand for independence on the grounds of persecution by the Sinhala-dominated is that most Tamils live outside the Northeast, i.e. “amongst” the Sinhalese.

In short it is implied, Tamils and Sinhalese have basically amicable relations, because, firstly, Tamils are “happy” to live amongst Sinhalese and, secondly, there is no communal, majoritarian violence.

But these assertions are wrong as they are based on untenable assumptions.

To begin with, no communal violence today is no guarantee it will be so in future.

Secondly, many Tamils have no choice but to accept the risk of communal violence and come to the south. Not only are the central mechanisms of administration and economic life in the south (Colombo) and not in the Tamil areas, but the conflict-stricken Northeastern areas are already dangerous for Tamils.

Past Tense, Future Imperfect

The first assertion that because they are presently living safely in the south amongst the Sinhalese the Tamils have nothing to fear is plainly challenged by the histories of communal violence in numerous places - including Sri Lanka, itself.

Here are a just few instances where once apparently ‘peaceful’ neighbours have turned on neighbours:

- India/Pakistan: Hindus and Muslims lived “amongst one another” under centuries of British rule, but the imminent formation of the independent states of India and Pakistan resulted in both mass movement and widespread communal violence between them;

- Yugoslavia: In post WW2 Yugoslavia, Serbs, Croats and Muslims lived “amongst each other” without major communal violence until the end of the Cold War. But ethnic and religious violence on a massive scale erupted within a couple of years (resulting, ultimately, in the formation – sometimes peacefully - of several new ethnically-defined independent states);

- Rwanda: In 1994, the Hutu majority turned on the Tutsi minority in genocidal violence – notably, shortly after a power-sharing pact had been signed;

- Iraq: Sunnis and Shiites lived ‘peacefully’ together under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship – even though his Sunni-dominated regime was persecuting Shiites along with the (Sunni) ethnic Kurds. It didn’t take much, after the US invasion, for whole slaughter between Sunnis and Shiites to erupt, resulting in the present ethnic enclaves across the country. (Moreover, the present ‘peace’ has involved the US arming the Sunnis militia while the Shiites - and Kurds - dominate the new armed forces.);

- Kenya: earlier this year, simmering ethnic animosities erupted into violence that resulted several deaths (and ultimately required forceful international intervention to fashion even the present fragile accommodation);

- Tibet: China sent in the military this year to quell rioting by Tibetans. Their mobs’ target? Not the Chinese state apparatus, but ethnic Han Chinese who have been increasingly settling in Tibet over decades;

- South Africa: also in 2008, ethnic riots between South Africans and migrant workers erupted on a scale that has embarrassed the self-styled ‘Rainbow nation’.

- Germany: large numbers of Jews opted to remain “amongst the Germans” even as the Nazis assumed power and formalized their persecution.

Whilst all these instances of communal bloodletting of course have different contexts and dynamics, on what basis of distinction can it be guaranteed mass violence against Tamils will not happen in Sri Lanka?

Tamils in the South

Whilst most Tamils originating from the Northeast (even many of the ‘Colombo Tamils’ have their familial roots there), large numbers have indeed lived in the south, amongst Sinhalese. But they have also suffered communal violence from the Sinhalese – condoned and sometimes openly supported by the Sinhala-dominated state.

As Prof. Sankaran Krishna points out it, the period since independence in 1948 has been “punctuated by bouts of annihilatory violence, often called pogroms, directed against the Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983”.

And in his seminal 1984 essay titled ‘The Open Economy and Its Impact on Ethnic Relations in Sri Lanka’, Sri Lankan academic Newton Gunesinghe described the period from 1977 to 1983, as “one of incessant ethnic rioting” by Sinhalese against Tamils.

Prof. Krishna has written a key text on underlying dynamics of Tamil-Sinhala relations, titled ‘Post Colonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka and the Question of Nationhood’.

He points out that, viewed against the Sinhala nationalist ideology of a majority-minorities hierarchy, these “periodic explosions of violence against Tamils represent efforts to put them back in their places on grounds they have become too assertive and need to be taught a lesson” (p54).

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, when those Tamils ‘living amongst the Sinhalese’ were systematically massacred and driven from their homes in the south, including the capital, Colombo, often by their Sinhala neighbours.

As has often been pointed out, the Sri Lankan state did nothing to stop the bloodletting. In fact, electoral lists were released to the rioters and army trucks moved groups of armed thugs from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

Six days after the mobs began their killing, President Junius Jayawardene made his first announcement in a radio broadcast.

He did not apologise, comfort or promise protection to the Tamils. Instead he blamed the pogrom on the desire of the Tamil people for separation, which, he said, began in 1976.

Ever present danger

It has sometimes been pointed out that since 1983 there has been no repeat of such Sinhala-on-Tamil violence.

But, firstly, that is to ignore the racial dynamics of the armed conflict in the Northeast: the Sri Lanka armed forces are overwhelmingly Sinhala-dominated. Today’s efforts to “teach the Tamils a lesson and put them in their place”, as Prof. Krishna puts it, is now the preserve of the Sinhala military.

Secondly, it is to ignore the latent “threat” of Tamil self-defence or counter-violence: during the previous pogroms or riots, there was no sizeable organized Tamil militancy.

In any case, the possibility of future communal violence cannot be discounted. Indeed, the threat is sometimes raised openly by Sinhala leaders and politicians.

In early 2006, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, on a visit to the United States, told the press that if attacks on Sri Lankan troops by the Tamil Tigers continued, his government “may not be able to restrain” the Sinhala people.

(Samaraweera, having split from the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse, has not styled himself as a champion of human rights.)

Also, in early 2006, Champika Ranawake, a senior minister in the present ruling alliance declared: “in the event of a war, if the 40,000 government troops stationed in Jaffna are killed, then 400,000 Tamil civilians living in Colombo will be sent to Jaffna in coffins.”

In Feb 2007, Ranawake, who is also the ideologue of the ultra-Sinhala nationalist monks’ party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), openly urged the murders of critics of his government’s critics, saying: “If they can't be dealt with existing laws we know how to do it. If we can't suppress those bastards with the law we need to use any other ways and means!”

This attitude is reflected in a myriad of state practices when it comes to engaging with the Tamils; from the security forces at the checkpoints to the courts to the seeking of employment.

Given all this, there is the question as to why Tamil “choose” to live in the south amongst Sinhalese. The answers are: escaping the warzone, pursuing basic economic life and transit.

For many Tamils, the areas outside the Northeastern warzone are comparatively safer places.

Whilst disappearances, indefinite detention, torture, etc are a risk in the south, the risks of these are far greater in their home towns and villages in the Northeast (consider the situation in Jaffna, for example, which has been under state control for 13 years). By the way, the imminence of (Sinhala) violence is referred to as ‘impunity’ by the international community.

Secondly, following decades of state exclusion from investment, even by the early eighties, the Northeast had little prospect of economic life outside state employment.

Which is why, despite, as Prof. Gunesinghe puts it, the period from 1977 to 1983, being described as “one of incessant ethnic rioting”, large numbers of Tamils remained in the south. Their luck ran out in 1983.

Yet, there is little choice for Tamils trying to survive today. Attempting to secure a basic economic life, many accept the latent risks of living in the south. Their desperation is heightened by Sri Lanka’s rampaging inflation.

Then there are those Tamils trying to get out of Sri Lanka, either for safety or to seek employment abroad to support families in the Northeast.

But with the state administration (travel and other papers), international embassies (visas) and the island’s sole international airport being in Colombo, large numbers of Tamils have come to Colombo and languish in squalid ‘lodges’ or crowd relatives’ homes while they try to arrange their departures.

Hardly the idyll of ethnic harmony claimed by those who abstractly point out that “most Tamils” – and that, incidentally, is also an uncorroborated claim – “live amongst the Sinhalese.”
- Sri Lanka Guardian