Ominous events in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province and gloomy pronouncements made in the Sinhalese-dominated South in the past few weeks indicate a widening gulf between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in the island nation.
These events and pronouncements weaken the hope that with the end of the separatist was in May 2009, ties between the Sinhalese and the Tamils would be restored and Sri Lanka would be a harmonious country again.
With the elimination of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the physical unity of Sri Lanka was restored, but the annihilation of the LTTE has not brought about ethnic reconciliation in political and economic terms.
No doubt, efforts had been made to bring about reconciliation prodded by international forces, but these efforts were abandoned halfway by political leaders who feared that giving in to Tamil demands for autonomy and justice would lead to a burgeoning of demands tantamount to separation. It was also feared that appeasing the minority Tamils could lead to an alienation from the majority Sinhalese community and a sure loss of power.
Immediately after the war, even the hawkish President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) comprising eminent people. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) took up the cause of restoring ethnic reconciliation by enjoining the government in Colombo to address the issues which led to the armed conflict in the first place. Through tough resolutions, the UNHRC prescribed an internationally monitored judicial mechanism to address alleged war crimes and other human rights abuses by the Lankan military.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government which was established in 2015, even went to the extent of co-sponsoring a resolution on ethnic reconciliation embodying a number of solemn commitments on its part, to bring about rapprochement with the Tamils.
The Wickremesinghe government started giving back lands taken over by the military during the 30-year war, an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was set up, and committees appointed to draft a new constitution devolving more power to the provinces including the Northern and Eastern Provinces did their work with diligence and completed their task.
But these efforts were halted at some stage due to lack of political will to proceed to the logical conclusion. There was little to show in concrete terms except in a few cases.
In the meantime, with the coming of elections to the Provincial Councils, Presidency and parliament, communal mobilization assumed priority and the ethnic issue was used to fan ethno-political antagonisms for political gain.
Sinhalese politicians led by former President Rajapaksa raised the bogey of Tamil separatism and accused the Wickremesinghe regime of planning to divide the country through a new constitution drawn up at the behest of its ally, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which to the Sinhalese radicals, is nothing but an avatar of the separatist LTTE.
Rajapaksa’s slogan has, for a long time, been: “I won’t give anything to the Tamils through talks, which they could not get by waging war.”
Independence Day Prouncements
The Tamil-Sinhalese schism was evident in the Independence Day events on February 4 this year. While Colombo and South Sri Lanka observed the day as Independence Day or National Day, the Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Province observed the day as “Black Day”.
While President Maithripala Sirisena said in his oration at Galle Face in Colombo that Sri Lankan leaders had spent time on solving the ethnic issue to the neglect of the country’s economic problems, the former Chief Minister of the Tamil- majority Northern Province justified the observance of the day by the Tamils as a “Black Day” and announced that he would approach the UN Secretary General to intervene in Sri Lanka and compel the government to implement the UNHRC resolutions on war crimes accountability and other matters related to reconciliation.
Sirisena Downgrades Ethnic Issue
Suggesting that the ethnic issue is less important than economic issues, President Sirisena said: “Every government spent their time to find solutions for the communal conflict. They gave priority to this issue. They attempted to find solutions. As a result of this, finding solutions for the economic crisis of the country was postponed. All gave priority to the ethnic issue.”
Black Day in North
At the same time in Jaffna in the North, the students union of Jaffna University brought down the Sri Lankan national flag and hoisted a black flag. Demonstrations were held in various towns in the Northern and Eastern provinces to highlight various Tamil grievances such as release of the imprisoned, inquiry into disappearances and the release of lands seized by the military. Agitators wore black armbands and head scarves.
US Secretary General’s Intervention Sought
The former Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province and presently leader of the Tamizh Makkal Koottanii (TMK) C.V. Wigneswaran, issued a statement in which he said that he will be making efforts to contact the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to get him to intervene to secure the Tamils’ rights in Sri Lanka.
“The period allotted to Sri Lanka by Resolution 34/1 of the UN Human Rights’ Council for implementation will expire in March. In 2015 further 2 years’ time was given to implement the original Resolution 30/1. Next month this matter is to be taken up in Geneva for review. This resolution was important in our agitation for the resolution of our conflict and in our search for Justice. No tangible progress has been made so far by Sri Lanka. We need to work towards the International community using its pressure on the Sri Lankan Government.”
“It is time to take this matter before the Secretary General of the UN. We need an independent International Mechanism to investigate the war crimes committed by Sri Lanka. We must agitate for such a mechanism. We should seek the support of the Secretary General to comply with provisions which relate to obligations imposed on the International Community through General Assembly Resolution 60/147 to act under the authority of chapter VII of the UN Charter.”
“We need to submit a Resolution ourselves in this regard to be brought to the notice of the Secretary General of the UN. I intend taking such steps through the Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC). I would be contacting Messrs Gajendrakumar, Suresh Premachandran, Ayngaranesan and Ms.Ananthy Sasitharan and others in this regard.”
“After Independence was granted (to Sri Lanka) by the British in 1948 the repression, exploitation and refusal to grant our legitimate rights continued even in a more virulent manner within this Island. That is why we have decided to show our disapproval and negative feelings in a democratic, peaceful manner proclaiming today’s so called Independence Day as a day of mourning.”
“An Independence Day should be celebrated by a people who obtained freedom. Not by groups of people who have been subjected to further repression, discrimination, exploitation and hegemonic domination after the British left. If under the present circumstances we were to celebrate Independence it would mean we are being forced and/or pressured to do so. That the Armed Forces in large numbers still residing among us have compelled us to do so.”
With the ethnic issue due to be taken up by the UNHRC is March, the Tamils are expected to up the ante and lobby hard in Geneva with support from the wealthy and influential Tamil Diaspora, a good section of whom are pro-LTTE.
Although it is unlikely that the UN or any Western country will take any punitive measures against Sri Lanka ,including economic sanctions, Sri Lanka may be named and shamed in international fora. That may bring solace to the Tamils but it would at the same time exacerbate ethnic tension and make the problem of reconciliation more difficult.
Both sides might end up losing in the end, if they do not attend to the problem with a strong will to find middle ground.