What is Wrong with Sri Lanka?

By Jegan Vincent de Paul
(These are the strictly personal views of the writer.)

(March 03, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) By now, many of us know that something is wrong on the island prominently referred to as Sri Lanka. The 25-year-old civil war between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka is at the height of its crisis. Keeping the LTTE cornered inside a few hundred square kilometers of jungle, the real war of the Government of Sri Lanka is waged on the Tamil people.

While the entire world is preoccupied with condemning the LTTE as terrorists, the Singhalese-dominated Government of Sri Lanka is busy planning and executing the final stages of a systematic genocide against the Tamils. In the past month alone, thousands of Tamil civilians have been killed and severely injured with hundreds of thousands forced from their homes often directly into zones where military violence is occurring. Current displacements of people are worse than that seen in Kosovo.

The real measure and extent of the murder of Tamil people underway is impossible to know. The Government of Sri Lanka, after its official withdrawal from the 2002 Norwegian-led cease-fire in early 2008, has expelled virtually all aid agencies, foreign journalists, and international monitors as the first step in conducting an illegal war. Its operations are now unfolding in complete media and diplomatic blackout.

In December, the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project listed Sri Lanka on the top eight red-alert countries experiencing or at risk of genocide. Two months later, genocide is nothing short of obvious with no plans for intervention by the international community, with the exception of meaningless suggestions to a cease-fire.

The president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has dismissed calls by a few willing nations to negotiate peace as an attempt to violate the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan state. The president of East Timor and Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta's recent request to assist in any capacity to end the conflict was unwelcome by Rajapaksa, who views the subjugation of people and voice as the solution to six decades of racial tension.

With Sri Lanka's independence from the British in 1948, all power of government was handed over to the majority Singhalese. The newly founded Singhalese government seized the opportunity to institute its hegemony over the entire island, appealing to mythic Buddhist Mahavamsa accounts of an ethnically pure island. This denied the minority Tamils their precolonial independent state of Tamil Eelam, constituting the north and east of the island.

Starting with the Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Sinhala Only Act of 1956—which denied citizenship to over one million Tamils and mandated Singhalese as the only official language of Sri Lanka respectively—Tamils were constitutionally discriminated against culminating in the 1983 state-sponsored Anti-Tamil Pogrom where over 3,000 Tamils were murdered and thousands of Tamil-owned businesses and houses destroyed.

Within this context, Sri Lanka saw the rise of numerous Tamil revolutionary groups forming the LTTE as the defacto organization fighting to reclaim Tamil Eelam's sovereignty.

Today, discrimination of Tamils and full-scale destruction of their civic structures is the domain and primary occupation of the Sri Lanka Security Forces.

Under the U.S. Genocide Accountability Act of 2007, former U.S. Deputy Associate Attorney General Bruce Fein—representing Tamils Against Genocide—recently filed a 12-count genocide indictment against Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka's Army Commander Sarath Fonseka—one a U.S. citizen and the other a green-card holder. The indictment report chronicles 3,750 extrajudicial killings, approximately 30,000 Tamils suffering serious bodily injury, and more than 1.3 million displacements since the time both members assumed their positions in the Government of Sri Lanka in December 2005.

Sri Lanka is a failed state by any account. No persons of the Sri Lanka Security Forces or any other branch of the Government of Sri Lanka have ever been prosecuted or punished for crimes against Tamils. The International Federation for Journalists has listed Sri Lanka as the second most dangerous place for journalists after Iraq. Freedom of speech—the cornerstone of democracy—is completely eroded and only anti-Tamil or anti-LTTE demonstrations occur without incidence.

Recent electoral victories of the Rajapaksa government—during the country's worst offensive against the Tamil people—confirms that Sri Lanka's disdain of Tamils is not limited to the ideology of state, but is the sentiment held by the majority of citizens. The Singhalese state is paradigmatic of the ultraconservative practice of building solidarity and nationalism through a shared and systematic abhorrence of a minority.

The significance of the deeply rooted ethnic tension between the Tamils and Singhalese over hundreds of years is overlooked by foreign nations, with attention paid only to the physicality and immediacy of war. This practice has misleadingly positioned the LTTE as a criminal actor because of its initial use of guerilla tactics to wage an asymmetrical war.
It is true that the LTTE has a history of condemnable acts, which receives a lot of attention from the international press, but the Government of Sri Lanka has been much worse, including the deliberate targeting of civilians with heavy force, the use of cluster bombs, and an officially tolerated practice of rape, among other crimes.

The LTTE has been condemned the world over, because its tactics of war have concurrently been appropriated by ideologically driven religious groups to attack the West. The identity of the LTTE has been consequently corrupted with its stated goals for nationhood systematically subverted and recoded to neatly align with a fabricated global ideology of terror—one being actively constructed by the United States and fully exploited by the Government of Sri Lanka.

The aim and constitution of the LTTE is rooted in secular principles and the right to self-determination—in practice, taking up arms as the last resort. America's founding fathers were not terrorists but revolutionaries. The decision of the United States to label the LTTE as a terrorist organization while maintaining its military and political support of the Government of Sri Lanka is a contradiction of its own ideals and history.

What remains of the LTTE after the end of this so-called "conventional war" should only be supported and the organization fostered into a legitimate political entity with the right to strengthen Tamil sovereignty and defend Tamil Eelam. The extent to which the LTTE becomes embroiled in violence again cannot be separated from Sri Lanka's insistence on the occupation of Tamil Eelam.

Right now, with increasing impunity, the Sri Lankan military continues its indiscriminate bombings of civilians who are outside its designated "safety zone"—a sham of a demarcation within which thousands of Tamils are further killed, starved, degraded, and antagonized with no freedom of movement or proper medical treatment.

What's worst, the Government of Sri Lanka recently announced the use of "welfare villages"—its brand of concentration camps—within which internally displaced Tamils must remain for a minimum of three years supposedly for rehabilitation
purposes. Testimonies from these barbed-wire camps report crimes as disturbing as forced abortions for Tamil women.

In such a climate, the immediate safety and the long-term livelihood of the exhausted Tamil people can only be secured by the international community. Any realistic policy toward the conflict needs to recognize violations by both parties and must not be relegated to the rhetoric of terrorism and counterterrorism. Ensuring the coexistence of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka on the island could be a successful model for post–war-on-terror resolutions of global conflict.

Should the UN or other nations intervene in the Sri Lankan conflict against the will of the national government? Share your thoughts on the Discussion Network.
About the Author

Jegan Vincent de Paul was born in Jaffna, in 1978 as the middle child of the five children of Margie and John Vincent de Paul. He emigrated to Canada in 1986 and has lived in Toronto over extended periods while considering many other metropolitan cities his home. He is currently a graduate student in the Visual Arts Program within MIT'S School of Architecture and Planning. He will graduate in the spring of 2009 with an SM in visual studies.
-Sri Lanka Guardian