Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict: From Reconciliation To Reescalation – Analysis


The national discourse in Sri Lanka moved from conflict termination to reconciliation with the end of the war in 2009. This essay argues that the concerned parties should shift the discourse from reconciliation to de-escalation because (1) the reconciliation project failed, and (2) the ethnic conflict shows signs of reescalation. It also argues that the possibility of anti-Tamil riots in the future cannot be dismissed.                             

Reconciliation Failed

When the war ended in 2009, domestically, none of the parties were interested in reconciliation. The Tamils had more severe problems to deal with. For example, mourning their dead, finding disappeared members of their families, and resettling the internally displaced community members were some of the immediate issues the Tamil community encountered. Reconciling with the Sinhalese was the last thought in their minds. Therefore, they were not concerned about postwar reconciliation. None of the Tamil leaders discussed the need to promote reconciliation.

On the other hand, the Sinhala people knew that reconciliation required political concessions to the Tamils. They were not prepared for concessions in the backdrop of the war victory. The slogan that we did not win the war through enormous sacrifices to make concessions to the Tigers was quite popular in the early days of the postwar era. 

Even though the conflict remained unresolved despite the military termination of the war, the international community brought the reconciliation slogan to Sri Lanka. Local communities were not overly interested in this project. That’s precisely why the project failed. Nevertheless, the international community did not give up. It persisted by excreting pressure to promote reconciliation, especially on the government. This approach also meant that the Tamil community did not face the same degree of pressure on this issue. The postwar Rajapaksa administration was not interested in promoting reconciliation or making concessions to the Tamils. Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa overemphasized national security regardless of its impact on postwar ethnic relations. For example, the Rajapaksa administration locked about 300,000 Tamils in prison-like welfare centers. Detaining a large number of ethnic Tamils in detention centers did not help the cause of reconciliation. 

Under pressure from the international community, the Rajapaksa administration established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which also failed to help because while underscoring the need for reconciliation, the commission justified the human rights violations, which took place during the last phase of the war, as unavoidable and necessary to deal with terrorism.  

The Yahapalana government, headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, won elections in 2015 with the help of the Tamils. Many Tamils, including their leaders, expected this government to promote reconciliation earnestly. The government made several promises to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). None of the pledges were fully implemented. For example, the promised truth-seeking mechanism was not established, the Office for Missing Persons hardly found any disappeared Tamils, and the devolution of power through constitutional reform never became a reality. Therefore, the Yahapalana government could also not contribute to postwar reconciliation. With the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president in 2019, the focus shifted to national security again. Hence, it is safe to argue that, as of today, postwar reconciliation in Sri Lanka remains a failed project. 

The Reescalation 

What is more concerning is the “reescalation” of the ethnic conflict. Some of the recent developments indicate that the ethnic conflict may be re-escalating. For example, tension between the two communities has escalated due to the construction of Buddhist Viharas in densely Tamil areas. The most famous case is the vihara under construction in Kurunthumalai, Mullaitivu. Militant Buddhist monks are building the vihara forcibly with the help of the military and state institutions such as the archeology department. The Tamils consider constructing the vihara in Kurunthumalai a forceful act because a court order has prevented further development of the structure. Kurunthumalai Vihara is not the only Buddhist structure cropping up in densely Tamil areas. There are several other new contractions as well. For example, a news report indicated that “recent revelations have brought to light the construction of 23 new Buddhist temples in the Kuchaveli area of the Trincomalee district, reportedly intended to serve a population of only 238 Sinhalese individuals residing across 10 Grama Sevaka units. This development has prompted concerns about the motivations behind building these temples in areas with notably low Sinhalese populations” (Lanka News Web, August 26, 2023). 

The Tamils fiercely protest these constructions because they believe these Buddhist symbols are part of more extensive and systematic schemes to deny Tamils the right to their land. Perhaps militant nationalists are targeting the Tamil “homeland” concept, which formed the basis of their struggle against the state. Some militant nationalists claim that there are many Buddhist sites in Tamil areas, and they are more likely to erect new Buddhist structures, leading to more tension. The Tamil community will try to mobilize local and international support against these constructions.   

The anti-Tamil rhetoric is also increasing. For example, protesting the court order preventing further development of the Kurunthumalai Vihara, Sarath Weerasekara, a former military man and a minister in the Rajapaksa administration, warned the judge not to forget that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. He claimed, “We cannot accept the Mullaitivu Magistrate Court Judge removing us from the Kurunthumalai site. He does not have the authority to conduct investigations related to archeology. He needs to understand that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation” (Tamil Guardian, July 10, 2023). Weerasekara seems to suggest that the Tamils need to learn to live like a second-class citizenry. Mervin Silva, also a former minister, recently declared, “I will come to the North and East. If you [the Tamils] disturb the temples and the monks, I will not return to Kelaniya empty-handed. I will come back with your [Tamil] heads hanging in my hands.”  These statements indicate that militant nationalists have been emboldened after the war’s end and feel that the Tamils are helpless and weak. Therefore, one could expect similar and more radical anti-Tamil rhetoric in the future. 

When the Tamils complained about the forceful construction of Buddhist structures in Tamil areas, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) stayed away from these issues to a large degree. However, Gajendrakuram Ponambalam, the sole parliamentarian from the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), joined the local communities in protest. There had been backlashes against Ponnambalam for his participation in these protests. For example, in August 2023, nationalist mobs gathered in front of Ponnambalam’s residence in Colombo and agitated for two days. The protesters wanted to remove Ponnambalam from his comfortable life in Colombo. The protest reminded me of the attack on S.J.V.Chelvanayakam when he opposed the Sinhala Only Act in 1956. Last week’s attack on the Thileepan commemorative procession in Trincomalee could also be included in this list of new aggression.  

An emerging issue that had the potential to create severe deprivation among the Tamils is the Kokkuthoduwai mass graves. So far, 17 bodies, believed to be of suspected LTTE cadres, have been unearthed from the grave discovered in June 2023. The Tamils believe the Sri Lankan military committed the murders during the last phase of the war. They demand an international investigation. History indicates that the government would not approve an international inquiry or treat the mass grave as a serious issue. This issue could add to the Tamil frustration and the desire to mobilize. 

Anti-Tamil Riot

The above-discussed issues indicate that there has been a clear reescalation of the ethnic conflict. If unchecked, they could culminate in a fragile scenario that existed in the 1970s. Anti-Tamil violence such as the Black July (1983) riots cannot be completely ruled out. 

One, militant nationalist forces seem emboldened and view the current scenario as conducive to achieving their nationalist objectives. They seem to believe that the Tamils have no safeguards to defend themselves. Therefore, nationalist agenda and programs would escalate, leading to more tense encounters. Two, if and when tension reached a new high, anti-Tamil riots could occur as an unintended consequence. What is required for such a spontaneous riot is an ignition. The LTTE’s killing of 13 soldiers in July 1983 served as the catalyst for the 1983 pogrom. A vandalistic attack on a Buddha statue ignited the infamous Mawanella riots. When the Tamils are frustrated, they could attack or vandalize Buddhist interests in Tamil areas, providing the excuse (or the ignition) for broad ethnic attacks. Therefore, it is time to focus on de-escalation and prevention of large-scale violence. 

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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