By Mohamed Harees –
“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes”- Mark Twain
In May 2009, a bloody war of more than a quarter-century for Tamil Eelam, fought by the LTTE, one of the world’s most ruthless militant movements, reached its bitter end. Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) thereby achieved what none of his predecessors managed before: to rout the Tigers, who controlled nearly a fourth of the island, and destroy their ranks as a conventional army. While previous governments were playing for a draw, MR government was playing for a win. MR was then acclaimed as the ‘saviour’ of the Nation, who gave political leadership, and credited with the honour of liberating the country from the scourge of terrorism, caring nought for international pressure, not even appeals from Sri Lanka’s powerful neighbour, India. Both his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Defence Secretary and Sarath Fonseka then Army Commander also earned similar laurels for the accomplishment. Thousands of servicemen laid their lives in battle and thousands of innocent civilians too were killed as a result of the terror attacks and bombs during the time of the war. However, there were many war crime allegations too, against the armed forces, during the last stages of the war.
MR then addressing the Parliament stated, Rajapaksa said that ‘for the first time in 30 years, the country was unified under its elected government. We have liberated the whole country from LTTE terrorism. The war was not waged against the Tamil people.Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the LTTE. We all must now live as equals in this free country. We must find a home-grown solution to this conflict. That solution should be acceptable to all the communities. We have to find a solution based on the philosophy of Buddhism’. It is pertinent to quote what Oswald Gomis, then Roman Catholic Archbishop said in a statement which reflected the aspirations of the people from the end of the war. ‘..In a sense we could say that we have won the battle but the war is not ended. The war would end only on the day that we grow in nationhood realizing that we are all one people in one country with equal right. We have to realize the fact that we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural community. As such we are now left with the great task of nation- building forgetting our ethnic, political and religious differences. It is imperative that there be a political formula that will inspire confidence and promote a sense of belonging among the minority groups in the country. We have to leave the sad and bitter memories of the past three decades and look positively and optimistically towards the future in hope. All of us have to share the blame for our division and forgive each other. We should have the humility and wisdom to learn from the sad experiences of that past. It is then, and only then, that we could build nationhood that will bring true peace and prosperity to our beloved country – Sri Lanka. Let us always remember that united we will flourish but divided we will perish’.
However, ten years after the end of the war, to what extent has Sri Lanka healed the wounds of war, engaged in nation- building forgetting our ethnic, political and religious differences? Or worked out a political formula that will inspire confidence and promote a sense of belonging among the minority groups in the country? The defeat of the formidable Tigers was a testament to the bravery of the armed forces and was a signal to the rest of the world of what Sri Lanka was capable of. Those selfless sacrifices made to protect the territorial integrity of the nation should be eternally remembered in a fitting manner. However how far has the country, moved beyond solely memorialising the military, to healing the wounds of war, towards building an inclusive Sri Lanka after a bloody war which killed about 100,000 civilians – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, who also gave their lives during this conflict? Should they not be remembered as well by the government by becoming more serious on reconciliation and nation building? The end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war in May 2009 provided an opportunity not only to rebuild shattered lives and society and but also to restore respect for rights and the rule of law. However, despite marginal gains, there seems to be no appreciable progress in this regard.
When the War ended in 2009, the people of Sri Lanka irrespective of racial and religious differences heaved a sigh of relief. People of all races longed for a day where the bombs and suicide bombers will be things of the past and live as a united and progressive nation. In May 2009, thankfully, they all woke up to a peaceful Sri Lanka brimming with hope and excitement. Of course, until 22nd April, the country was spared of any terror attacks and was enjoying a ‘bomb-less’ peace- an absence of war. The people of the North and the South began to see each other. The appalling Easter Sunday terrorist suicide bombings and the ensuing mob violence targeting Muslims once again brought back ugly of the war which was riddled with bombs and suicide bombings and underlining the existing tensions in Sri Lanka 10 years after the war’s end and the urgent need to uphold human rights protections. However, the dreams of the people of Sri Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims remain shattered due to the impunity crisis, lack of attention to post-war reconciliation and healing process, continuance of majoritarian attitudes in statecraft as well as political short termism and corruption.
What happened to the billions of money ‘saved’, spent earlier to oil the war machine? What happened to the promise of raising the standard of living out of the money saved? What happened to the promise of reconciliation and the big boast of making the people feel inclusive -as equal citizens, after MR said that ‘after this, there will not be any majority and minority; rather those who love this country and those who don’t’? MR regime initially shattered those laudable dreams of the people by running a dictatorial, majoritarian and corrupt rule where people of all communities including the majority felt marginalized and neglected. There was visible development (harbour, airports and highways etc) but by making Sri Lanka deeply debt ridden with wide allegations of political corruption. Then the so called Yahapalana clique came into power, and despite some more freedom to breathe and talk, there has been utter chaos in all fields including security. Sinhala as the majority race felt cheated, with fears of their status as the dominating race in utter jeopardy and put at risk by the vague policies and approaches of this government appeasing minority parties. Their many reasonable fears have not been addressed in a proper way. The state of the economy too was plunging due to chronic corruption, heavy debt and uncoordinated planning. The standard of living of the people of this country overall has been falling and deteriorating. The political climate has turned appalling, with the President and PM at logger heads with the situation aggravating after the October 2018 constitutional coup. The country has come to an ungovernable state after this political crisis. There is no visible government in power or in charge.
Culmination of this dangerous mis-match between President-PM was this unforgivable security lapse which led to this Easter Sunday massacre, where vital information about devious plans of the barbaric Muslim terror group NTJ to launch suicide attacks on selected Christian and economic targets were virtually ignored. Muslim leaders have provided prior warnings about the activities of this deviant group too. Both leaders began to blame each other while the Intelligence which was enjoying a world-wide reputation as world class during Tiger days, lay shattered and confused. Till today, the government has not taken full responsibility for this tragedy. In another country, the government or at least those directly responsible would have resigned. Not in this country! It was the mature leadership of the Cardinal and the tough measures taken by the Army commander which saved the country from another bloodbath.
The minority communities particularly felt alienated and marginalized in the Post-war period. The rulers used racism as a political tool to prop up their stay in power. The ethnocentric policies and majoritarian attitudes in statecraft of Post-Independence governments institutionalized and the resultant civil war pushed Sri Lanka away from liberal democracy. Instead of reversing this trend and grasping the opportunity to build an inclusive nation, the MR regime made use of the ‘war victory’ in 2009 to further its dynastic and authoritarian designs with MR projecting himself as the ‘uncrowned king and champion of the Sinhala Buddhist people. MR’s defeat in January 2015 improved the condition of the Tamils to a certain extent, and reversed the island’s authoritarian trajectory. However, majoritarianism remains institutionalized in Sri Lankan political culture, which has left many obstacles to pluralism and in the path towards Tamils and other minorities from achieving full inclusion. The minority communities are not involved in common state crafting.
The Tamils feel marginalized after the end of the war when the international community raised war crimes allegations against the Sri Lankan government and its’ armed forces. They feel bring deceived both by the GoSL (LLRC recommendations are in the backburner) and the international organizations for being unable to secure the implementation of a proper mechanism of accountability for the atrocities committed during the armed conflict in general and during the last stages of the war in particular. Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Sri Lanka and called for an accountability process to be put into place in order to address violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The UN’s failure to act along with the lack of political will in the international community to take action has given the government of Sri Lanka free rein and allowed it flaunt post-war obligations to ensure justice and reconciliation. Nothing notable appeared to have been enacted to pave the way for transitional justice (aside from the painfully slow creation of an office of missing persons) or to achieve a culture of accountability. It is a culture of impunity that has marred Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history. Meanwhile, of course, accountability for war crimes committed during the conflict and the fates of thousands of missing Sri Lankans go unaddressed. The many promises of this present government remains unfulfilled, including the resolution of the national question and granting more federal powers to the periphery.
Muslims, too have been feeling a sense of alienation and marginalization specially in Post War Sri Lanka. It seemed that the ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism needed the maintenance of an enemy to thrive. Thus, after the defeat of the Tigers, Sri Lankan Muslims became the next enemy and a well-orchestrated hate campaign begun in the Post- war period initiated by hate groups bearing Sinhala-Buddhist name-boards, implicitly with State patronage. BBS, Sihala Ravaya and other satellite anti-Muslim hate groups emerged with different agendas; but with the same goal of making Muslims feel both insecure and alienated. This explosive situation gave rise to Aluthgama anti-Muslim communal violence in 2014 under MR rule. Under this government, which promised to prevent any repetition, we had few others – Gintota, Ampara, Digana and now in many places in the North Western province. In all these hate attacks, hate groups supported by those harbouring political ambitions were involved. The attacks followed a set plan: A justifiable ruse was invented; Muslims were then attacked while they were initially disarmed to the teeth, then curfew imposed, then STF/ Army was deployed who send the Muslims indoors and to hiding while the perpetrators were allowed to act without fear or sanction. There were also reported instances of complicity in these crimes, on the part of those who are expected to maintain law and order. In the case of Aluthgama, Ampara and Digana, there was wide impunity with those responsible being unpunished and no proper compensation being paid to the affected families. This will also be the case in this Post-Easter Sunday anti-Muslim hate attacks too. While the Muslim political leaders are in deep slumber, the Muslims are presently subjected to a double whammy- being caught in a nightmare where they are under pressure to assume collective guilt for the unforgivable Easter Sunday tragedy committed by those bearing Muslim names and then being left at the mercy of the hate elements to make them insecure and fearful of their future. Some rogue sections of the Sinhala media are hell-bent on demonising the Muslims, allowing the devious plans of the terror groups to work, to make the Muslim community feel isolated and then exploit their hidden fears to get ready recruits to their evil cause. This type of marginalization happened during the Tiger days among Tamils, and consequences were disastrous. Today, Muslims are left to fight for their existence.
The end of the war in 2009, thus gave Sri Lanka another historic opportunity to come together as an inclusive nation. Sadly, it did not materialize. The majority Sinhalese feel that they have been taken for a ride while the minority communities both Tamils and Muslims also feel that many of the grievances around systematic prejudice remain unaddressed. A rise in intolerance has been attributed in part to the post-war triumphalism of some Sinhalese majority politicians. The fear in the Muslim community now, of course, will be that the government clamps down on them in the ways it previously clamped down on the Tamils, including extrajudicial abduction, torture and murder. Even as many angles both at global and local political levels are being looked at for the reasons for the Easter Sunday tragedy, the Christian community is still in a state of shock. They need healing too. Thus, a decade after the end of the war, the country has come upto a decisive point in its’ enviable history of over 2500 years, where the people should take over the reins to direct those in power and to put sense into the selfish political class who have put the nation at risk and jeopardy. The future of the nation is at stake.