The Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan State - Sri Lanka Guardian

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan State

By Ashik Bonofer & David Morgan

(May 01, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) “Mahendra Percy Rajapakse now known as Mahinda Rajapakse has been a doughty defender of human rights in the past. Mahinda played a very important role in giving leadership to those who resisted the flagrant violations of human rights by the United National Party (UNP) regimes of Junius Richard Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa.Many of us recall the harsh experience he underwent while going to Geneva with dossiers to expose the UNP record in Human Rights (HR) at the UN. Mahinda being a solid Southerner from “Bentara Gangata Egodaha” focussed mainly on the state of human rights in the Southern Province. There was nothing wrong in this as it was the South which suffered the most during the second insurgency years of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Mahinda and Mangala Samaraweera were instrumental in organizing and backing many mass movements and mass fronts against prevailing tyranny of the state then. Rajapakse established himself firmly in the South as an ardent champion of human rights.”

The man who vehemently advocated for human rights during the 70’s and 80’s has become one of the main offenders and a conspirator against human rights in the present day Sri Lanka. While one expected the island nation to be free after the end of war, the present day situation appears to be the other way around. The common man in Colombo, who walks without any fear of suicide attack from the LTTE, sees a new threat emerging in the form of police and other government agents who involve themselves in intimidation, ‘white van’ culture and unwarranted arrests.

The above quote on President Rajapakse shows the journey of the incumbent man to the nation’s highest position. While the voters look up to the President to provide a safe and secure nation, in reality, the President uses all his powers to lead an autocratic rule and deny basic human rights. During the days of war, LTTE’s terrorism was used as a reason to suppress most of the democratic values, but since the elimination of LTTE, what can be the rationale behind the increasing crime rates and violation of the democratic norms in Sri Lanka? Colombo which was comparatively a safer place to dwell has seen sporadic violence against journalists, humanitarian workers and human rights activists. What is more, if residents of Colombo were to face such dangerous situations, miseries pertaining to people living in northern, eastern and central highlands go unspoken.

"THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Catholics,

and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

THEN THEY CAME for me

and by that time no one was left to speak up."

Pastor Martin Niemöller

Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem is a typical example of events that followed post-independence period in Sri Lanka. Initially when the Indian Tamils were denied citizenship, except for the left parties, Colombo did not react. During the JVP riots, the Colombo elite showed a blind eye to the massacre of the Sinhala youth. The three-decade-old ethnic conflict and the defeat of the LTTE were issues pertaining only to the Tamils and not of the nation as a whole, still the majority and the Colombo elite showed little concern on the suffering of the Tamils. Now the nation is living in fear, not even the Buddhist monks are being spared of the brutality of tyrannical rule, but unfortunately there is no credible left behind to raise and talk for justice. Who next is a common question raised in Sri Lanka.

The concept of welfare state has become an illusion for most democratic nations. Despotism, corruption and police brutality have become the norm of all democratic states. Sri Lanka is no exception to these cruelties. The government of Sri Lanka has become a family affair of President Rajapakse. Over 300 top posts and strategic positions are held by his kith and kin. The recently held Presidential and General elections of 2010, are typical examples of how the incumbent president has abused the state machinery and media to gain support for himself as presidential candidate and his two brothers, son and niece as parliamentary electoral candidates. They all won with unprecedented majority. His son is the youngest elected MP in the new parliament. If this is the situation how different is this from any autocratic rule.

For most Sri Lankan’s the end of Eelam War IV was a welcome sign. More so, the elimination of the LTTE has neutralised the fear of suicide terrorism. However, for the Sri Lankan Tamils, this is a start of a new ambiguous, leaderless journey towards an indeterminable future. All that they hoped to achieve during the three-decade old struggle is all lost and all that remains for most Tamils in the north and east are damaged homes, a shattered economy, unemployment, lack of basic facilities, broken families, destitute children, destroyed traditions and culture and hundreds of wounded victims. In the words of DBS Jeyaraj, “the tigers may have gone but the ill-effects of tigerism linger. Velupillai Prabhakaran along with his followers, minions, sycophants and fellow travelers has wrought great and possibly irreparable harm on the long–suffering Tamil people. The Tamils are a battered and shattered people without even a glimpse of a glimmer at the end of a deep, dark tunnel.”

The community has suffered more from this long drawn armed ethnic conflict with nothing to show for achievements. Now that the war is over, the living conditions of the Tamils in North and East have changed very little, except that there is no forceful conscription by the LTTE. Instead the state sponsored machinery has taken a lead in administrating many inhuman activities. This paper is an attempt to sketch the sufferings of the innocent people at the hands of both Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. It analyses the problems faced by the Tamils since the beginning of Eelam War IV, and their current situation in camps and war torn villages in the northern and eastern provinces. This paper is based on the experience of both the authors during their visit and work in Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Problems faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka

“It’s a sin to be a born as a Tamil in Sri Lanka”

These words said by mutual friend whose family was in the IDP camps, soon after the end of war, outlines the suffering of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The government looked at the Tamils, with suspicion, as ardent supporters of the LTTE. The only exceptions were the overt supporters of President Rajapakse. This was the case not only with Tamils; even Sinhalese who are critical of the current regime have become potential targets for white-van abductions and intimidation by the Police.

The Tamils in north and east of Sri Lanka have been living in oppression and appalling conditions for over three decades and this continued even after the end of Eelam War IV. However, this situation started changing during the run up to the January 2010 presidential elections. The incumbent president issued orders for lifting all restrictions at checkpoints at the entrance to the Northern Province. While it was expected that people would be allowed to move around without much restrictions reports say that permanent presence of army in North would soon add to roadblocks, checkpoints, patrols, systematic surveillance, harassment and intimidation of the locals[1].

Comparatively, the Tamils in Colombo were in better position than those in the north and east, but even that did not last long. Fears of abduction in Colombo are intense these days. Earlier LTTE’s terrorism was the only visible threat, but now government’s tyrannical rule has become a major threat. Registration at the nearest police station in Colombo has become a way of life for the Tamils; hence, there is nothing much for Tamils living outside of Colombo to grudge about. While the Tamils were looked upon with suspicion and subjected to cruel treatment in the south, in the north the LTTE did not spare any Tamil youth from conscription. Ranjani Thiranagama in one of her UTHR special reports lamented that ‘the young Tamil girls had to become pregnant in order to save themselves from forceful conscription of the LTTE.’ However, during the last days of war the LTTE did not spare even the pregnant, the suicide bomber who attempted to kill General Fonseka was a pregnant woman.

Although such pitiable conditions have changed over the years, victimisations of the people continue on a larger scale. There would not be any LTTE sponsored terrorism in Sri Lanka and under the present international setting (where nations gang against liberation movements), it would take decades for the Tamils to regroup as an armed organisation, were they to resort to armed rebellion. However, the government of Sri Lanka using fear of LTTE resurgence as an excuse for all their stringent methods of governance and policies would only lead to further alienation of the Tamils.

In a recent visit to Batticaloa and Ampara, after the end of Eelam War IV, the one of the authors was fortunate enough to travel by a private van; hence was not subjected to cruel treatment of the armed forces. However, while on road to Batticaloa one did find army disembarking all the Tamils traveling by bus for full security screening. While private vans are also subjected to complete security check in some cases, they are spared. Another strange visual one finds is that, near every check points the roads are dug in order to slow the traffic. This can be seen in most places in north and east. Since the time the Eelam War IV ended the government has been involved in a major infrastructure development mainly laying roads. However, these road projects -mostly funded by Indian government- end well ahead of Batticaloa. The internal road network in most of the Eastern Province is still in bad shape.

Although the eastern province was cleared by December 2007, one witnesses very little growth in this region. More than the growth, it is the fear of abduction and the rivalry between Karuna and Pillyan groups that haunts the common man. While the hostility between Karuna and Pillyan groups were temporarily stalled due to elections, it could remerge anytime endangering the lives of Tamils and Muslims in this region.

Nearly nine months after the defeat of the LTTE, it was thought to be safe for Tamils from North to travel to Colombo. But in most cases it simply proves to be an illusion. Recently a young Tamil woman from Vavuniya, who is working for an NGO involved in relief operations travelled to Dehiwela, Colombo for training. The reluctant and naïve women on reaching Colombo was questioned by police officers at her lodge. While, none of the policemen spoke Tamil, she couldn’t speak Sinhala. Her requests to call her Colombo office were also denied. On wanting to search her room, her request for a female officer was also turned down. She was remanded; the crime - not speaking Sinhala. This person has already had the childhood experience of seeing her mother’s brains blown off by IPKF soldiers in Jaffna. It was several days before her office was able to secure her release and send her back to Vavuniya, only to never visit Colombo, ever.

In another case, a Tamil youth working in the Middle East had come home in Vavuniya and needed a police report to renew his passport. Knowing that the police officers were not proficient in Tamil he ensured that the reference letters were typed in English. However on arrival at the Vavuniya police station he was asked to produce the document in Sinhala. He had to hunt for someone capable of rewriting letter in Sinhala. The youth and his guardian were also compelled to sign a document which’s content they were not aware of. All that concerned the youth was a passport to leave the country. If he were to raise this issue, his pathway to freedom would have been obstructed with the risk of being arrested as a LTTE suspect. The job done, he left the country with a sigh of relief knowing that he had ten more years before having to encounter a repeat performance.

Nearly ten months have gone by since the government gained control of the whole country, but little has been done to accommodate Tamil-speaking officers at least in police stations in majority Tamil-speaking areas. This plight is further exemplified in the Open University, Northern branch in Vavuniya where certain courses are available only in Sinhala, surprisingly without takers, and the same course in Tamil is only available at the Colombo centre. The lethargy and indifference shown here is a reflection of the scant disregard and insensitivity of those concerned. Policy without the political will and a sensitized bureaucracy will achieve very little towards building racial and ethnic harmony.

It seems, by increasing Chinese presence in the South, Rajapakshe has succeeded in luring India into making a permanent presence initially in the East and now gradually moving into the North. Amidst widespread allegations of large scale vote rigging at the Presidential elections the Indian Government was quick to congratulate President Rajapakshe on his victory. This was also done after the general elections. There is speculation that India is setting up an Industrial Zone close to the Trincomalee harbour at the expense of displacing already displaced refugees. India has already provided the Rajapakse government handsome grants for the development of the North with pledges for more. INGOs have been asked to reduce activities and NGOs have been told that India will be providing all agricultural requirements of the returnees.

Some also pointed out that prior to the closure of ICRC offices in Eastern Province the families of the victims sought ICRC’s intervention to find out the whereabouts of the missing persons, whom eventually were traced to Menik farm and other camps. It is also believed that this was the major reason for the government to force ICRC to vacate from the Eastern Province. Resettlement in Killinochchi and Mulahtivu has slowly begun and ICRC has been asked to windup operations in the North as well. What a coincidence?

IDP situation

With just over 80,000 IDPs still languishing in Menik farm, others have moved out to their villages, new resettlement areas, and camps closer to home and some live with relatives. Those who chose to leave on their own are provided with 12 Indian roofing sheets, a promise of an allowance and a halt to relief or subsidies. INGOs and NGOs are advised against providing relief to returnees moving into Mullaitivu and Killinochchi as that would inculcate a dependency syndrome. In any case, as the resettlement period took much longer than the normal UN recommended 3-month period, meanwhile donor funds have dried up.

All development and resettlement efforts are being decided and closely monitored by the newly established Presidential Task Force. The PTF powers exceed that of even the Government Agent. It is the discretion of the PTFs to either grant or deny permission for the INGOs or NGO to work amongst the IDPs. Whilst some NGOs have been given limited access, those currying favour with the government are granted blanket access to all regions and still others denied any access. This arrogant attitude has forced many INGOs to windup operations thereby indirectly paving the way for increased Indian influence in the region.

Another issue of contention is the rehabilitation of the Ex-combatants. Nearly 10,000 former LTTE cadres are held in state buildings including schools. For normalcy to return these buildings will have to be released for their assigned purposes. A long-term plan to rehabilitate and integrate these cadres into mainstream society is still to take root. The person entrusted with this task, Major General Daya Rathnayake, a man with vision and commitment has been promoted to Chief of Staff of Sri Lankan Army.

While the Government is busy blaming the UN de-mining team for delay in certifying de-mined areas, reports say that the Government has not permitted international agencies to de-mine in Killinochchi and Mullathivu. Instead the government has requested the international agencies to supply equipments to the Sri Lankan armed forces for de-mining. Informed sources opine that mass graves in these areas could be one of the reasons. In addition, speculations of an army monument or barracks being built in these areas have become a reality. Hence it is natural that most IDPs would not be allowed to settle in their place of origin. .

Assessing the problem of IDPs since the end of Eelam War IV, one never fails to notice some of the international and local media being jubilant about the good work done by the government in the IDP camps. However, it is important to know that these camps were completely under the control of the army commanders and out of bound for media and outsiders. The government during the initial days took these media only to particular camps and not all camps; hence, a clear view was never available. Having been under the army’s control, humanitarian work in any camp purely depended on the commander in charge’s discretion. Sources point that in most camps the army general did allow the humanitarian workers to help the victims and the cadres. Although the personal traits of the army commanders did bring enormous good will amongst camp inmates, stringent policies of the Government were always a hurdle. It is an irony that the Government also levied taxes on the import of aid materials and medicines that are being imported. However, informed sources report that aid material imported in the name of President Rajapakse’s son are exempted from tax. Unfortunately these items could only be distributed by President’s son during his visit to the camps, hence timely distribution of the aid materials always remained a concern.

It is nearly a year since the war ended in Sri Lanka, and the nation has been jubilant in eradicating terrorism. Nonetheless, the government has not been able to bring all the people under the umbrella of good governance. Rehabilitation and resettlement of the IDP’s has become a factor of politics and political mileage rather than a humanitarian issue. Two issue needed to be looked into at this juncture, first the number of IDPs being resettled and their concerns about livelihood and second; the problems faced by the IDPs languishing in the camps in Northern Province. As regards the IDPs who were resettled, there has been conflicting news of their whereabouts. As mentioned earlier, many IDPs continue to stay in the areas adjacent to the A9 highway. According to the government statistics in March 2010, nearly 1.9 lakhs of IDPs have been resettled. The Hindustan Times reported on March 28, 2010 that despite government claims, most of the resettled IDPs face enormous issues relating to basic infrastructure and necessities. The government having gone public by stating that the presence of land mines as the reasons for delay, sources also point out the government is also not providing enough alternatives for rehabilitation. While, rehabilitation is a major concerns for the resettled, for the 100,000 IDPs hailing from Killinochchi and Mullathivu their future is nothing more than a big question mark.

The role of the UN and other INGO’s in providing humanitarian assistance has been a crucial factor. It is understood that these agencies have started winding up their work. While news reports say that the UN stopped the supply of essentials to the IDPs due to lack of funds, reliable sources from north indicate government’s stringent control over the INGOs role in rehabilitation as the reasons behind most of them winding up their humanitarian work. With situation turning out to be far murkier, would the government of Sri Lanka be able to fill in the gap that would be created by the exit of the INGO’s.

The recent estimate by the UN show a figure of over 160,000 houses[2] requires either repairing or complete rebuilding. The report further draws attention to funding availability with INGOs as follows: Current available funding allows for the repair and reconstruction of just 22,120 units. These include the World Bank-sponsored North-East Housing Reconstruction Programme of 14,000 homes, as well as 4,500 by the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), 3,220 by the Arbeiter Samariter Bund (ASB) and Solidar, and 400 by the Sri Lankan Red Cross with German Red Cross funding. Having said so, it is important for Sri Lanka government to utilise the humanitarian assistance rendered by the INGO’s instead of alienating them and augmenting to the sufferings of the people.

While on one side, there are IDPs in north in camps as victims of Eelam War IV, in the east Tamils belonging to Sampur are being held in IDP camp as fallout of economic displacement. After the LTTE was cleared from Eastern Province in 2006, most Tamils have been allowed to go back to their original homes, but for the Sampur Tamils. They have been denied permission to go back to their original homes, because of the declaration of High Security Zones, which subsequently has become Special Economic Zones. Media reports expose that an imported coal based thermal power plant has been planned in Sampur as a joint venture between Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC). During an interview with these IDPs, we were informed that an alternate location offered by the government was not at a feasible site; hence, they were left with no options but to stay in camps.

Political Contours

The LTTE having declared itself as the sole representatives of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, has over the years eliminated all the Tamil leadership. The LTTE’s political establishment was only an instrument to justify its military structure and to get better mileage out of the peace process. The LTTE’s top leadership including the political representatives having been completely wiped out, the Tamils in Sri Lanka are left to choose between the TNA, EPDP and the TMVP and a whole lot of sundry parties to act as their political representatives. The division and infighting amongst the remaining Tamil leadership is also becoming a major factor that is working against the interests of the Tamils.

The Presidential Elections of January 2010 clearly exposed the polarisation in the Sri Lankan polity. While most of the Sinhala Buddhists in the South had supported President Mahinda Rajapakse, the North and East were rallying behind General Fonseka. Analysts point out that the defeat of the LTTE and the TNA’s support for Fonseka were the main reason for the over whelming victory for the President. Although this presumption is largely valid, it is also important to note that there was very little voter turnout in the North. The parliamentary election of April 2010 also indicated a similar pattern. This could be partly because of vacuum in Tamil leadership, which could represent the Tamil cause. Many fragmented splinter groups including a section of the TNA joined forces with the ruling party. The TNA is the only remaining opposition party in this region with EROS joining them. However, with over 80,000 in Manik Farm and a similar number in other smaller camps voting turn out is likely to make a big difference in the number game.

It is still anybody’s guess whether all these number games would make much difference in Sri Lanka. Having lost on all alternatives like autonomy, separate eelam and the thirteenth amendment, there is very little political mileage the Tamils can expect from the Sri Lankan Government. It might not be incorrect even to say that this would be the last election where the Tamils would be a majority in north and east. With the plans for more army settlements in Killinochchi, Mullathivu, and other areas not long before that these places would be colonised by the pleasant Sinhalese. Will the politicians who represent the Tamils be able to safeguard the concerns of their electorate would always remain a question.

Conclusions

The days, when the Sri Lankan government depended on the LTTE’s ruthless terrorist agenda for its survival and LTTE habitually opposing Sri Lankan government’s anti-devolution and anti-political solutions for its own survival are over. Sri Lanka has moved into the next phase of her political journey, whereby the government’s sincerity is again put to test. Will the government prove itself as a responsible democratic institution for all the people?

Three contradictory and important reports are worth mentioning at this point. First, in a letter to the IDPs, President Rajapakse says, “You will find new and welcome challenges of the future. My Government has done much to make your new life most acceptable to you, providing the needs for a quality of life to enhance your dignity as a person.[3]” Second, the Inter Press Services (IPS) report of April 26 shows a contradictory picture of the life in Jaffna. The report quotes “two cyclists from the minority Tamil community are shooed away by government soldiers as they approach this northern Sri Lankan city’s only Buddhist temple while President Mahinda Rajapaksa is paying a visit. But when a family from the majority Sinhalese family ambles toward the guards, they are treated more amiably.”[4] Third, the New Indian Express report of April 26, reported that a luxury hotel that is being planned near Nallur temple would be put on hold following protests from local Tamil dignitaries and opposition political parties.[5]

These three reports show the gap in the government’s announcements and actual reality in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. There has been a systematic government sponsored Sinhalese colonisation of the Northern and Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Although the government rejects these claims, sprouting of new businesses managed by the Sinhalese and the Buddhist Temples in North are typical examples of colonisation. In the east, government used development projects as a reason for colonisation; similarly, development of north is also likely to face the same fate. Having won the war and with victories in both forms of elections under his belt would the president show some concern towards healing the ethnic wounds or do the same way as his predecessors did?

The President pleaded for a two-thirds majority at parliament elections to allow him bring in the necessary reforms. He also pledged to drastically scale down his cabinet; however, numbers may increase in due course. The overwhelming victory at the general election sans the expected majority leaves room for much speculation. It seems the government will fall short of its desired two-thirds majority by 7-10 seats. The TNA reduced to 14 from 20 seats, has already made overtures to negotiate with the government. While, it is expected that a so-called scaled-down cabinet, nepotism, rising cost of living, removal of GDP+ privilege, and reduced international support can soon lead to intra-party unrest within the government forces, issues like rehabilitation, resettlement and political solution would take a back seat.

India being the closest neighbour only shows interests and apprehensiveness in Chinese building ports and airport. Lives and livelihood of hundreds and thousands of people living under vulnerable conditions in north and east, figure only in statements and very little is done towards rehabilitating these hapless people. While, more and more Indian companies show keen interests in investing in north and east, it is important that these companies should show fairness in employing the localities. The corporate sector, which is subsumed to the philosophy of maximum profits, in this current given situation, should give more importance to Corporate Social Responsibility than only looking at profit making.

(Ashik Bonofer is currently working as a research fellow with Centre for Asia Studies, Chennai. He could be contacted at bonofer@gmail.com)

[1] http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/mar2010/sril-m23.shtml

[2] http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportId=88614 (As on 31-2-2010)

[3] http://www.indiandefencereview.com/2009/12/the-rajapaksa-model-of-defeating-terror-securing-peace-and-national-reconciliation.html (As on April, 27, 2010)

[4] http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=51188 (As on April, 27, 2010)

[5] P K Balachandran, Hotel plan near Nallur temple put on hold, The New Indian Express, Chennai, April 27, 2010,

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