It is ten years since the civil war ended in Sri Lanka. The final phase of the war is one of the most brutal in recent history and mass atrocity crimes were systematically committed against the Tamil people. The shelling of civilian areas and hospitals, and the blockade of essential goods including food and medicine, killed an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 Tamil civilians in the final months. And thousands of civilians and combatants disappeared as they surrendered to the Sri Lankan armed forces, even days after the end of war.
During the thirty-year armed conflict, among the nearly 4 million Tamils some 200,000 died violently, around 60,000 remain missing, an estimated 90,000 widowed and more than 8,000 children orphaned; more than a million left the country; up to a million were internally displaced; and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property destroyed. The legacies of the war are many – complete destruction of infrastructure, long-term impact to education and health, separation of families across oceans and continents, and non-existence of employment and economic development in the North-East, not to mention the pain and suffering still endured by the victims and their families, especially those searching for answers on the fate of their disappeared relatives.
The armed rebellion itself was an outcome of systematic discrimination, marginalization and violence the Tamil community was subjected to since independence from the British in 1948. The denial of Tamils aspiration for equality with constitutionally recognized self-governance in their traditional homeland, and the resultant fear of losing their just rights and ethnic identity in the country were the root causes of the 70-year-old political conflict.
Lasting peace and reconciliation for all peoples of Sri Lanka, and achievement of their full human and economic potential, will only be possible when the root causes of the war and its tragic after-effects are wholly and candidly addressed.
The end of the war in May 2009 provided a unique opportunity to do so, however, to date the country has very much squandered it. For the first five years, the all-conquering government was opportunistic in its authoritarian consolidation of power, further weakening the Tamil community with no regards for their trauma or human rights. The next five years of the ‘coalition government’ although lessened the fear of the citizens and partially delivered on strengthening key institutions, it too majorly failed in addressing the fundamental grievances of the Tamil community and the much anticipated Constitutional Reform.
It is an indisputable fact that ten years after the end of war, transitional justice remains highly politicized with little or no impact on victims and their families. Not a single family affected by enforced disappearance has ascertained the truth or received justice, let alone reparation. On asserting criminal culpability, no court has been set-up, no indictment served, and no one brought to justice. And those credibly accused of being responsible for the dastardly crimes remain free – some continue to occupy high government positions, while some others with ambition for higher offices.
The attempt at drafting a new constitution that will secure the consent of the Tamil people, on matters of regional power-sharing, has become hostage to the Sinhala nationalistic politics and practically stalled. In educational achievements and economic development, the once successful Northern and Eastern Provinces now appear to have sunk to unacceptably low levels.
Regardless of these political and economic debacles, the legacy of the decades-long armed conflict for justice, equality and self-determination remains deeply entrenched in the Tamil community. The resolve for asserting their political rights and re-establishing the community’s pride of place in the country through political representations, as well as the continuous agitations for land release and information on the fate of the disappeared is quite inspirational. The internationalization of the Tamil Struggle for justice and the notable role Tamil Diaspora play in this respect are two important upshots of the long, drawn-out conflict.
An undeniable truth of the post-war Sri Lanka is its inability to embrace real change. The fundamental building blocks for transformation, viz., open and transparent national dialogue on accountability and truth seeking, ending of impunity, and legitimizing Tamil political aspirations by way of an inclusive constitutional framework have been completely lacking. Besides, there was never a strong national leadership from any of the major political parties advocating for such fundamentals of peace and reconciliation.
Essentially this reflects the inability of the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian nationalists to come to terms with the idea of a truly pluralist state that recognizes equality and political power-sharing with other ethnicities. Such irrational intransigence on the part of the majority community and their politico-religious leadership had remained the foremost impediment to the minority communities being accepted as equals into the fold.
Moreover, the recent Easter Sunday attacks, though complex and multi-faceted in its origins and impact, undoubtedly shows that a society where segments of population remain marginalized, rejected and disempowered is a fertile ground for extremist elements to exploit. And the need for transformative change in Sri Lanka is now more urgent than ever.
Role of the international community
The geopolitics of the region and the international community’s interest in preventing the recurrence of deadly conflicts have ensured Sri Lanka remained firmly on the international agenda. The initiatives at the UNHRC, and the multilateral diplomatic pressure and economic assistance provided by several countries to make Sri Lanka adhere to the international norms are of great significance. The targeted assistance provided by a few countries to the most affected regions are also noteworthy.
However, Sri Lanka has repudiated its commitments to the international community through half-truths and half-measures without suffering any real consequences. The key countries’ unreadiness to take the next logical step such as exercising universal jurisdiction, enforcing country specific Magnitsky laws, adopting alternate UN processes or withdrawing trade concessions, which could directly impact the country and the individuals who are implicated in past atrocities, is of grave disappointment to say the least.
Sri Lankan leaders and its people who ultimately decide the future of the country need to be cognizant of the fact that their irrational intransigence to inclusiveness and meaningful socio-political change will continue to cost the Sri Lankan society hugely – a point emphasized by the international community as well.
While remembering those who perished and suffered in innumerable ways during the decades-long struggle for equality and justice, we solemnly commit to continue to do all that is possible, however long it takes, to ensure that the Tamil people in Sri Lanka will one day constitute a confident and empowered community that will have opportunities to lead a peaceful, prosperous and fulfilling life. (Global Tamil Forum – GTF)