By G K Nathan –
Tamil Eelam (North East Sri Lanka) is the homeland of Tamils of Sri Lanka from time immemorial with definable sovereign identity, which was acknowledged even during the colonial rule, first by the Portuguese followed by the Dutch and finally by the British. All three Colonial powers who occupied the Island in part or as a whole respected the differences of Sinhala and Tamil sovereignties and administered the areas separately for over three centuries. Only in 1833, the British for administrative convenience brought the peoples together and unified the whole Island and divided the Island into five provinces. But, recognized the differences between the two Nations; the North and the East were combined as one of the five provinces and named as “Tamil speaking” areas and the other four provinces as “Sinhala speaking” areas which were demarcated and shown in the first official survey map issued by the British. The five provinces were later divided into nine provinces, two of which Northern and Eastern formed majority Tamil speaking provinces, while the other seven became majority Sinhala speaking provinces. Ignoring the historical facts that two Nations existed, prior to and during the colonial era, a unitary constitution was promulgated at the time of Independence in 1948, which failed to meet the need of multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious country. This act sowed the seed of Sinhala-Tamil conflict and Britain has moral responsibility for the sorry saga and political uncertainties in Sri Lanka.
Successive Sinhala political leaders, instead of finding unity in diversity by sharing power with all peoples, advocated and promoted Sinhala Buddhist parochialism in Sri Lanka at the expense of rights of minority groups, using the power of a majority in a unitary constitution. Religious propitiation led to the rise of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism and rise of extreme groups with tacit approval of politicians who exploited this development to come to power, which is occurring even today. Now Muslims have become victims of the same forces attacking Mosques and their business establishments. Deprivation of rights of minority groups started with passing of “Sinhala only bill” and giving Buddhism the foremost place at the expense of equality enjoyed by all other religions: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in the 1948 constitution, which led to Buddhist Monks (Sangha) influencing the political process at the cost of harmony in the country and Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was murdered in 1958 by a Buddhist Monk for declaring to recognize the rights of Tamil speaking people. Eelam Tamils demand for recognition of their rights with peaceful protest evolved into military confrontation that led to the first Internationally initiated peace process and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, which was signed between President of Sri Lanka J R Jayawardene and Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, in which North East Sri Lanka was recognized as the homeland of Eelam Tamils. Unfortunately, predisposition of President J R Jayawardene with respect to Tamils and what he said, at the time of Island wide pogrom against Tamils in “Black July 1983”: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy” – ‘Daily Telegraph’, the July 1983; did not augur well for the implementation of the accord and it remains unfulfilled, to date. ‘The Economist’ in August 1983 in an article titled ‘Sri Lanka Puts a Torch to its Future’ said that “These two weeks of terror will cripple Sri Lanka materially for years, but the damage to the national psyche may be even longer-lasting. A separatist movement can sometimes be stamped out by determined repression. Two alienated communities cannot be welded back together by similar means.” True to the words of ‘The Economist’, for more than two and a half decades, the successive Sinhala leaders failed to implement the accord and to devolve power to Eelam Tamils. The willingness to share power was thwarted by the message spread by Sinhala Buddhist Chauvinists that Sri Lanka is a “Sinhala Buddhist country” and the seed of dissension between the Nations continued to grow, while the Sinhala Buddhist moderates remained silent.
The final outcome in Sri Lanka will be determined by the forces of moderation rising against the forces of extremism to find an equitable outcome, which constitutionally recognizes everyone’s rights. It is up to Sinhala and Tamil Nations in the Sri Lanka to emulate, Australia or Canada with about the same size of population as in Sri Lanka, where the states/provinces have the right to self-determination which has strengthened and united the people of Australia and Canada. Canadian French speaking Quebec Province held “sovereignty referendum” twice, in 1980 and 1995 both times it was rejected by the people, which demonstrates that the fear about “right to self-determination” is unfounded, in the contrary it strengthen a country’s democratic credentials. As members of Commonwealth of Nations gather in Sri Lanka for CHOGM2013, later this year, giving considerations to constitutional structure of Canada or Australia will disprove the conclusion drawn by ‘The Economist’. The past experience is a warning to all moderate people of Sri Lanka, that the time is running out and unless new steps are taken to reverse the current trend of polarization, the future looks bleak with inevitable International intervention leading to division of the country, which has happened in the past and may happen in the future too.
De-facto Tamil Eelam and International Intervention
Contrary to facts that Sri Lanka is a multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious and adverse actions against minority groups by first and successive regimes of Sinhala Buddhist majority, led to start of Eelam Tamils’ non violent struggles for defending their rights soon after the Independence of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1948. Actions which affected the unity of the country are:
- In 1949, disenfranchisement of Tamils of Indian origin workers who were brought by the British in the 19th century, supported by the Tamil Congress leader, resulted in the reduction of Tamil representation in the Parliament.
- Demography of Tamil Eelam was changed with planned colonization of Tamil homeland.
- Introduction of “Sinhala Only Bill” contrary to undertaking prior to independence, that Sinhala and Tamil will be made the official languages, made Tamils second class citizen and deprived employment opportunities to Tamils.
- Deleted an unalterable Section 29(C) in the 1948 Constitution guaranteeing the rights of minority groups with the promulgation of the 1972 Republican parliamentary constitution which deprived even more the rights of minority groups and alienated the Tamil Nation and the rise of Tamil militancy.
- Tamil political parties jointly passed the “Vaddukottai Resolution” calling for the right to self-determination of the people of Tamil Eelam in1976 which was approved by 82% of the people at the Parliamentary election held 1977.
- In the same election, J R Jayawardene, the leader of the opposition was elected as the Prime Minister with overwhelming majority in the Parliament; a pogrom against the Tamils followed that election and a large number of the victims were upcountry Tamils and were later settled in Tamil Eelam. Exploiting the unexpected and overwhelming majority in the General election, a new constitution with Presidential system of government was promulgated in 1978 with absolute power in the hands of the President of Sri Lanka, which put all minority groups at the mercy of a Sinhala Buddhist President whose past antagonistic stand against Tamils is in record.
- As opposition leader in 1956, he joined hands with the Sinhala Buddhists chauvinists and campaigned against “decentralization of power and reasonable use of Tamil Language”, which was later withdrawn by then government. The rise to power of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinistic President J R Jayawardene led to the beginning of Tamil youth militancy and the struggle for an Independent Tamil Eelam, as a solution to stop the oppression of Eelam Tamils in Sri Lanka.
India as the immediate neighbour and the regional power in South Asia, also cognizant of the presence of over 70 million Tamils in India with a strong umbilical cord between Eelam Tamils, intervened in Sri Lanka as an inevitable act. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi offered military training to Tamil youth post “Black July 1983” pogrom. Her past record in liberating Bangladesh in 1971 by helping to defeat, Pakistani occupying forces in Bangladesh gave hope to the people of Tamil Eelam. The premature death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 dashed all hopes of Eelam Tamils, events that followed the death turned for the worst and Eelam war I began between Tamil militants and Sri Lanka armed forces (SAF) in Tamil Eelam. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi intervened for the second time and arranged “Thimbu talk” in 1985 between Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and Tamil militants, the proposals put forward by the militants: recognition of Tamil Nationality, recognition of Tamil homeland, right to self-determination and recognition of citizenship of all Tamils who consider Sri Lanka as their homeland. These proposals were not acceptable to GSL and the peace process failed; followed by a breakout of military conflict in 1986 with indiscriminate aerial bombing, imposition of economic blockade and enforced starvation of people in the North of the Island.
In 1987, India intervened for the third time by dropping food parcels from the air to the starving population in the North, the defiant act from the big neighbour India persuaded Sri Lanka to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, which led to the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka 1978 constitution. Even though, the amendment failed to meet the aspiration of Eelam Tamils; 13A, primarily intended to North East Provinces, beside experimentation for about two years, remains unimplemented in Tamil Eelam, mainly due to the reluctance of successive GSL to devolve power to the provinces. As part of the agreement, Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) arrived to maintain peace and disarm the militants, contrary to expectation; a military confrontation broke out between IPKF and LTTE in 1988. In 1989 the newly elected President Premadasa started peace talk with LTTE and tactfully supported the LTTE military confrontation with IPKF and further undermined the accord. In 1990, on the request of President Premadas, the IPKF made an ignominious withdrawal with a loss of about 1250 military personnel in the failed peace keeping operation in Sri Lanka. In 1991, Mr Rajiv Gandhi as leader of the Opposition and President Premadasa were murdered, allegedly by the LTTE, which further undermined the International involvement, which worked in favour of GSL. Two key elements of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord were the recognition of historical facts that North East Sri Lanka is the homeland of Tamil speaking people and the formation of a single unit combining two provinces to be determined by a referendum, which emerged from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. According to “Vienna convention on the Law of Treaties” the parties should respect, but 25 years have passed since signing; only time will tell the outcome? The major reason for the failure of the 13th Amendment can be attributed to the signatories to the Accord, who failed to enforce the agreement which could have partially met the rights of Eelam Tamils within a united Sri Lanka. The failure of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and India’s withdrawal led to start of Eelam war II between the SAF and the LTTE.
In 1994, President Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, agreed for a ceasefire between GSL and LTTE, following that agreement four rounds of peace talks were held that too failed and Eelam war III started, which led to LTTE establishing a de-facto Tamil Eelam state within Sri Lanka in two-third the area of Tamil Eelam. Second internationally initiated peace process was initiated by Norway, the USA, EU and Japan, and a Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) was signed between the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the Leader of the LTTE on 27 February 2002. Norway became the facilitator and the ban on LTTE was lifted by GSL. As part of this agreement on 22 February 2002, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was set up with members drawn primarily from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland. This led to relaxing of border control and free movement of people between the two zones and reduction of fighting between the warring parties, as part of the initiatives the International community brought the groups together and initiated a peace process. Following the CFA, a number of peace talks took place between the GSL and LTTE based on the principle of “Internal Self-Determination” the progress was painstakingly slow and did not help due to lack willingness to devolve power away from the domination by majority Sinhala Buddhists. In May 2003, President Kumaratunga not happy with the Prime Minister’s concessions to the LTTE publicly stated her willingness to sack the prime minister and the government. On 4 November 2003, while Prime Minister was on an official visit to the United States of America, President Kumaratunga prorogued Parliament and assigned Defense Interior and Media ministries to herself. Following her earlier threat, in January 2004 she dissolved the Parliament and the Parliamentary election was held on 2 April 2004, her party won 104 out of 225 seats and Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka belonging to a Coalition of parties, in which many were opposed to the devolution of power. In the same election Tamil National Alliance had an overwhelming majority in Tamil Eelam, demonstrating the division in the country. In the same year, a devastating Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 affected mostly the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka and caused death of over 35,000 people. The natural disaster and willingness of the International community to commit 4.5 billion of dollars for reconstruction and development provided an opportunity to all communities to work together. A Provisional Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS) was set-up made of members of GSL, LTTE and Muslim members, which was another opportunity for both Nations to work together on a humanitarian problem. Emergence of President and Prime Minister from the same party, as well as due to the intransigency and entrenched positions between the warring parties, failed to evolve or advance the peace process based on CFA to promote working for a united country.
In the presidential election held on 17 November 2005, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa emerged victorious with the narrowest of margin, polling only 50.29% of the votes cast. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the new commander-in-chief of the SAF and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the Defence Secretary, unleashed Eelam War IV against the LTTE and the people of Tamil Eelam in breach of the CFA. Ironically, the LTTE called upon the people of Tamil Eelam to boycott the presidential election in 2005 and about 98% of the people in the Northern Province did not participate in the Presidential election, the history and the outcome would have been different, if not for this boycott call. The undeclared war first started in the East, which was strengthened by the breakaway faction of LTTE joining the government forces; victory in the East led to multi-prong attack on LTTE stronghold in the North. The war was conducted with logistic support to SAF by India, presumably under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord; military and material supply from China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran made SAF land, air and sea forces were more than a match to depleted LTTE forces. The lukewarm opposition from the International community which was weary of International terrorism, aided President Mahinda Rajapaksa to unilaterally abrogate the ceasefire agreement in January 2008, following that decision the SLMM terminated its remaining operational activities in Sri Lanka with effect from 16 January 2008. In September 2008 GSL ordered the United Nation agencies and International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to leave the conflict zone, banned foreign aid into the region and removed all media presence in the war zone. President Rajapaksa as the Commander of the Armed Forces unleashed a uneven “war without witnesses” against LTTE and the people who were not a match to the fire power of SAF, claiming that the GSL is conducting a war against “Tamil tiger terrorist” with “zero civilian casualties”. The military conflict which lasted almost three decades came to a sudden end within four years on 18 May 2009 with total annihilation of the LTTE; at the final stage of the conflict about 300,000 people were entrapped in a narrow strip of land of about 70 sq km surrounded by water on all sides; the number killed is put at any number between 40 and 100 thousand, but a report by Bishop of Mannar estimated that 146,679 people went missing based on the official statistics of number of people, before and after the end of war.
Reports from United Nation Secretary General appointed Panel of Experts and UN Internal Review Panel, United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC) submissions and resolutions at the 19th and 22nd sessions, International Human Rights Organizations, latest film by Callum McCrae “No Fire Zone” and earlier Channel 4 videos have all shown that there are mounting evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and alleged genocide. The evidence shows of widespread indiscriminate shelling of: civilians, hospitals, humanitarian convoys and Red-cross designated facilities; other acts are: murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, torture including rape, outrages on personal dignity, humiliating and degrading treatment, failure to collect and care for wounded and sick; besides enforced disappearances, denial of humanitarian assistance and starvation of people occurred. Emergence of evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and alleged genocide of a nation, justifies the call for an Independent International Inquiry, knowing the truth will establish accountability and advance reconciliation of Sinhala and Tamil Nations.
Move to Authoritarian Rule in Sri Lanka, Where will it End?
From the time Mahinda Rajapaksa became the President of Sri Lanka, he disregarded the CFA sponsored by the USA, EU, Japan and Norway as the facilitator and conducted a war which destroyed Tamil militancy. But, the evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity has emerged against President Rajapaksa, as commander in chief of armed forces, Defence Secretary and other members of armed forces. President Rajapaksa used the military victory and support among Sinhala Buddhist, to win the Presidential election on 27th January 2010 with 57.88% of votes cast; also won the Parliamentary election on 8th April 2010 with increased representation in the Parliament from 104 to 144, just short of two third majority. The big victory by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has led to many acts to further to consolidate his power and the analysts have pointed out the President Rajapaksa is heading towards setting up an authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka. Like many other authoritarian rulers before him in the world, President Rajapaksa is following the path taken by former Presidents of Indonesia, Libya, Egypt and others. Some of the disturbing trends under President Rajapaksa are:
- Appointment of members of Rajapaksa’s family who are currently holding positions: his brothers – Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary; Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development; Chamal Rajapaksa Speaker of the 14th Parliament; his nephews – Shashindra Rajapaksa, Chief Minister of the Uva Province; Shameendra Rajapaksa, Director Sri Lankan Airlines; his cousins Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States; Udayanga Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Russia; Prasanna Wickramasuriya, Chairman Airport & Aviation Services Limited Sri Lanka and brother-in-law – Nishantha Wickramasinghe, Chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines. President Rajapaksa has retained control of three very important ministries: Defence, Finance & Planning, Highways, Ports & Aviation. More than three quarter of Sri Lanka budget is in the control of Rajapaksa family.
- President Rajapaksa has used many benefits and perks given to ministers in his government to attract members of the opposition to join the government and cleverly reached the two-third majority in the Parliament to give him a stranglehold on the democratic process in the country. The same tactics was used when he was first elected as President in 2005 and to convert the minority to majority government. In January 2013, there were in all 97 Ministers and Deputy Minister out of 225 members in Sri Lanka Parliament of which 66 are Cabinet Ministers, this is a world record for any country.
- Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist members from the President’s coalition of parties challenged the functioning of P-TOMS and unification of Northern and Eastern Provinces in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka which upheld the challenges, which put a break to the progress of reconciliation. Though President could have taken remedial action failed to do so, which questions his commitment to promoting reconciliation.
- The CFA was supported by International community, the unilateral abrogation and conducting of a war in breach of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Laws as alleged by Panel of Experts appointed by Secretary General of United Nation, exposed the President to war crimes and crimes against humanity charges.
- Failed to implement the 17th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, introduced on 3rd October 2001 and passed by more than two third of members of Parliament, to appoint independent commissions to administer the Police, Judiciary, Public Service and Elections to decide on the appointment to higher offices. Instead President is continuing to make appointments and influencing the outcomes as per his own wish without independent scrutiny.
- Following the victory at the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, introduced the 18th Amendment on 4 September 2010 to enhance provisions of Presidential power: changed limit of two terms of six years each for a president to unlimited one, Constitutional Council and Independent commissions became non-functional, increased the Executive’s control over appointments to higher offices in the land, gave the President the power to regularly attend and address Parliament, thus mixing executive and legislative powers between two institutions. Also removed vital checks on Executive power and further undermined Sri Lanka’s imperfect democracy. President holds three key ministries: Defence & Urban Development, Finance & Planning, Ports and Highways, together with Basil Rajapaksa’s ministry of Economic Development account for more than 75% of the National budget. A strangled hold on the management of finances of the country and concentration of power in the hands of a few set the scene for an authoritarian rule in the country.
- Media freedom was restricted with connivance of law and order forces in the country; a big section of the media is under the control of the government. The civil war ended in May 2009 but, according to Reporters Without Borders, “murders, physical attacks, kidnappings, threats and censorship continues and that senior government officials, including the defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, are directly implicated”. The same body put Sri Lanka as 163 out of 179 countries in their Press Freedom Index for 2011/12. Since 1999, in all 25 killed and 20 journalists fled the country fearing for their lives and some disappeared without any trace, most of these occurred during the life of current regime.
The above events that occurred during the eight year of Presidency of Rajapaksa and his option to remain in power for life, cast doubts about his intention and whether President Rajapaksa will ever willing to find an acceptable resolution to the six decades long Sinhala-Tamil conflict; because of his own disregards for the rights of others and his dependency on Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists to remain in power and Defence Secretary who is tangoing with chauvinist elements. The signs are that the current government of Sri Lanka is moving towards an authoritarian regime and it will be a challenge to the International community to make any progress to seek justice for the victims of this long standing conflict in Sri Lanka, under the current regime. The forth coming provincial council elections in Sri Lanka will be a signal how far the arms of government have been extended to influence the outcome. Looking back at the failed and current authoritarian rulers in number of countries show how the authoritarian rulers always won with huge margins in elections, until people uprising overthrew them. There are many parallels between Indonesia / Timor Leste and Sri Lanka/Tamil Eelam, which will reveal unpleasant surprises.
Lessons from Timor Leste for President Rajapaksa’s Regime
Timor Leste known as East Timor in English was the first country that became liberated in the 21 century after occupation by Indonesian military, since invasion in 1975 of East Timor. The Western governments were supportive of Indonesian President Suharto’s claim that he was fearful of East Timor becoming an independent communist state within the Indonesian archipelago at the height of the Cold War. There are similarities between invasion of Tamil Eelam and East Timor, former for elimination of terrorism and the latter prevention of setting up of a communist state, both have similar past history during the colonial era.
East Timor is part of Timor Island in the Indonesian archipelago in South East Asia, is less than a quarter of the area of Sri Lanka with a population of about 1.4 million people, the Western part of the Timor Island is part of Indonesia. Both East and West Timor Island were under colonial rule; East Timor was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century and about the same time West Timor and rest of the Indonesian archipelago became a Dutch colony. About the same time the colonial powers’ attention was on Sri Lanka (Ceylon) too and the Sinhala Kingdom based in Kotte fell to Portuguese at the beginning of 16th century followed by Jaffna Kingdom in the beginning of 17th century. In the mid 17th century the Dutch conquered the former two kingdoms from the Portuguese. At the end of 18th century sovereignty of Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms were transferred to British and it conquered the third Kandyan Kingdom in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 19th century; the Island of Sri Lanka was unified under British control. In comparison area of Tamil Eelam is about a third of Sri Lanka with a population of about 2.5 million people; Fretilin in East Timor and the LTTE in Tamil Eelam, staged armed struggle to establish their rights against Indonesia and Sri Lanka respectively after both were invaded by the neighbour. The current trend in Sri Lanka is very much similar to what happened in Indonesia, looking at what happened in Indonesia, will help to take remedial action to prevent the same repeating in Sri Lanka
Thirty two years of Suharto’s “regime that began in blood with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in an anti-communist crackdown from 1965 to1966 ended with more bloodshed” resulted in the fall of Suharto’s regime in 1997. Initially, Suharto’s regime had the blessing of West in the midst of cold war and made economic progress at the start; but later the regime became authoritarian, repressive, corrupt, suppressed media freedom and democratic institutions, practiced nepotism, most corrupt country in the world and the President Suharto rule came to an end in May 1997. In 1999, following the United Nation sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory, and East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on May 20, 2002. What is said about Indonesia is happening currently in Sri Lanka, after President Rajapaksa won the war under the pretext of fighting a war to “eliminate Tiger terrorists” with “zero casualties”. The truth about war crimes, crimes against humanity are being slowly revealed and President Rajapaksa’s regime is moving towards setting-up an authoritarian regime which is very much evident from what is said before. People’s protest in the country and recent killing of civilians at Gampaha District uprising, increased workplace unrest, weakening economy due events beyond the control of the current regime, overly dependent on China at the expense of India’s displeasure, dishonoring of undertaking to International community to determine accountability to war crimes and crimes against humanity leading to reconciliation, threat to amend the 13th amendment or repeal it altogether as demanded by Defence Secretary and chauvinistic elements may lead to a situation going completely out of control, needing International intervention to bring peace in the country, as it happened in Timor Leste. Rise and Fall of President Suharto and liberation of Timor Leste are lessons for all; Sri Lanka remaining united depends on avoiding the repetition of what happened in Indonesia being repeated in Sri Lanka. “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” – Abraham Lincoln