By Deirdre McConnell –
The history of the persecution of the Tamil people is long. Colonisation of Tamil land by the Sinhalese goes back nearly 200 years. For more than 70 years, there has been systematic denial of other economic, social and cultural rights; and of civil and political rights. Discriminatory legislation disenfranchised Tamils (1948), denied them equal rights in language (1956) and education (1971). The 1972 constitution abolished the right to appeal to Privy council; abolished section 29 of the 1946 constitution which intended to protect numerical minorities; renamed the island Sri Lanka, rather than Ceylon, (favouring Sinhala concepts), and gave Buddhism foremost place over other religions practiced on the island. This last, secured the ability of Buddhist clerics, alongside Sinhalese politicians to maintain Sinhalese control. A distorted version of buddhism, which demonises Tamils (who are mostly hindu, though there are Tamil muslims and christians too) inculcated belief that Sinhala Buddhists are racially superior to the Tamils. This ideology influenced and influences the policies and actions of successive governments of Sri Lanka up to the present day.
Non-violent resistance: With each wave of racist legislation Tamils protested with dignified satyagraha protests (non-violent civil disobedience in the Ghandian manner). However these were crushed with hostile and repressive measures taken by police and army on the direction of the government. In the 1950s and 60s Tamil politicians proposed political solutions. However, agreements for peace based on a quasi-federal system devolving certain powers to the Tamils in North and East signed by Sinhala leaders (prime ministers) and Tamil leaders (parliamentarians) to resolve the political turmoil, were unilaterally abrogated by the prime ministers then in power. Between the failed agreements of 1957 and 1965 over 500 Tamils were killed.
By this time and over the next decade, the Tamil non-violent movement, Tamil civil society and their political parties started to consider it time to exercise their right to self-determination. They had been consistently denied the right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development as provided for in international law in article 1.1 of the ICCPR and ICESCR.
Self-determination: In the July 1977 elections the Tamils voted overwhelmingly for their desire for self-determination to be defined by external self-determination. The government responded by introducing the Sixth amendment to the constitution prohibiting peaceful advocacy of independence. The rest is history. Further persecution of the Tamils included the burning down of Jaffna library in 1981, destroying over 95,000 irreplaceable ancient Tamil texts and manuscripts. By now an armed resistance movement was forming to defend Tamils. During the July 1983 pogroms in which over 3,000 Tamils were brutally killed, Tamils were identified by their names, electoral lists or the fact that they could only speak Tamil and not Sinhala. The International Commission of Jurists reported that this victimisation and dehumanisation of Tamils was of genocidal proportions.
Since then acts of state violence have continued, in what became a genocidal war. Rape as a weapon of war has been used systematically against Tamil women. The UN Working Group on Disappearances reports that Sri Lanka has the second highest number of disappearances in the world. The Prevention of Terrorism Act – PTA is used to facilitate torture; sexual violence against women; disappearances and extra-judicial killings and to entrench impunity. It allows confessions made under torture to be admissible in court. Over years international HR organisations have condemned the PTA, calling for its abolition.
Mullivaighall 2009: Since the massacres of 2009, which cost between 70,000 and 140,000 Tamil lives, the EU and many countries have actively taken up the issue. Channel 4 media has documented war crimes and crimes against humanity committed at the end of the war. Careful documentation of interviews and courageous testimonies by victims has led to widespread awareness of the dire situation of continuing torture; violence against women; land-grabbing – and militarisation, Buddistisation, Sinhalisation of Tamil homeland in the North and East.
International scrutiny: The report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) issued in September 2015, identified a pattern of persistent and large scale violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The Resolution agreed by consensus in the HRC of the same month, was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka itself. This resolution urges implementation of the recommendations of the OISL. Yet the government is attempting to convince the international community that all is well now, and that there is no need to implement the recommendations.
The victims need justice not denial: 11 previous presidential commissions of inquiry produced no fruitful outcomes for the victims. The present ‘Office for Missing Persons’ is deeply structurally flawed and victims fear it will be fruitless. There has been no significant land releases or detainee releases. The consultative task force of NGOs say they have no help from government media to disseminate their ideas on transitional justice, and language discrimination continues. Memorialisation of the dead has been criminalised. Hindu temples are destroyed, and Buddhist ones erected even where no Buddhists live. The government promised to reduce military spending but has increased it. It is a deeply militarised state, both judge and jury of its own acts. Recently media have exposed the fact that new legislation the government is proposing to replace the PTA, is no improvement, it is actually worse not better.
These facts and strong representation should be made to the OHCHR and member states of the HRC .
The Sri Lanka government is attempting to eyewash the international community but this needs to be exposed. The government must take concrete and immediate action towards full implementation of Resolution 30/1 with genuine commitment to accountability and reconciliation.
Deirdre McConnell -Director – International Programme – TCHR