By Mohamed Harees –
Any sensible nation would have learnt from the gory events that changed this island nation’s history and sent a once booming economy into a downward trajectory, with billions of dollars since been spent on and thousands of lives lost as a result of the thirty year old ethnic strife that followed ‘Black July’. Although war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka is nowhere yet near a point where bitter lessons were learnt to transform itself into an inclusive nation. With no political will and pseudo nationalist fever running high, turning into racist tantrums, the country which once outshone others in the region, is sadly on the path of self destruction , unless the people shows fresh resolve and determination to change the political course of history and its political culture.
As the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom is fading into distant memory, senior journalist DBS Jeyaraj correctly cautioned, in his column in 2010, that ‘the inherent danger in the pogrom of July 1983 being forgotten is that it may very well happen again. As the truism goes “those who do not remember the lessons of history are condemned to relive it again. Arguably had the memory of 1958 anti-Tamil violence been frequently re-visited, the incidents of 1977 and 1983 may not have recurred…The ugly head of neo-fascism masquerading as patriotism is being raised. The Tamil people in particular and the minorities in general are being pilloried as “aliens” and “visitors”.The purveyors of racial hatred are spreading their evil gospel and irresponsible sections of the media are peddling it regularly. Communalist propaganda in the garb of pseudo nationalism is gaining ground’. This was evidently seen in the Post-war era.
After 1983, the Sri Lankan State lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Tamil community, as articulated best by former TULF Member of Parliament late Neelan Tiruchelvam, who described it as “the anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”. The Sri Lankan State, began to be increasingly seen and perhaps also acting, as a Sinhala State, rather than a pluralistic, multi-ethnic and inclusive state.
Sri Lanka would have been a paradise and even better than Singapore if not for this conflict. Around 1981-82, Sri Lanka – the first South Asia country to liberalise its economy, far ahead of India – had a booming economy and was heading for the kind of prosperity enjoyed by the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies when the conflict reversed the trend. To our collective shame, an entire ethnic minority countrywide were targeted, innocent men, women and children.
1983 riots however, did not arise due to animosities between the two communities. In fact, during the July 1984 riots many Sinhalese residents saved the lives and properties of Tamils from the gangs defying a curfew to maraud and rampage. Some Tamils were sheltered in Sinhalese houses during the violence as the mostly Sinhalese police and military looked on. It was the absurdity of chauvinistic politicians who were responsible for this situation.
The 1983 massacres in Sri Lanka are best understood within the context of the post-independent state of affairs that prevailed in the country at that time. Many negative developments in Post independence Sri Lanka such as the pre-1983 communal riots against the Tamils, abrogation by the Sinhala political leaders of pacts entered with the Tamils leaders, at the instance of the ultra-nationalist and Supremacist Sinhala lobby groups, and many of the colonization projects in the north and the east by the Sinhalese of the south were contributory factors. The government also began to closely monitor all media coverage on the recent developments in the country. On July 2, 1983, the government proceeded to close down two leading Tamil newspapers in Jaffna, the Saturday Review and Suthantiran (Freedom), whose editor Mr. Kovai Mahesan had been detained under emergency regulations. It is within the backdrop of these events that the riots of July 1983 should be understood, behind the seemingly spontaneous eruption of inter-communal hatred lay ominous warning signs which went unheeded by State authorities. Whatever the explanation, the immediate and long-term consequences of the 1983 riots have had devastating effects on the country.
Perhaps the worst consequence of the protracted conflict has been the rising level lawlessness in society prompted by a sense of impunity that some say has origins in the fact that none of the perpetrators of the 1983 violence were brought to trial. Unfortunately, the mentality, the politics and rhetoric which enabled and created July ’83 has sadly not entirely left our public discourse. Indeed, this trend has become worse off after the so-called Presidential election victory of the ‘Sinhala people’. Human rights violations, including by the law enforcement authorities, have steadily increased over the years.
Worryingly the same rhetoric is emanating from the self-proclaimed saviours of the Sinhala people today, in relation to the Muslim community. Thus, the common thread for all communal attacks violent acts which extended further , to encompass all communal attacks on another minority community-the Muslim upto now, is a culture of impunity that has persisted in the island from the time Sri Lanka gained independence 72 years ago. Sri Lanka has been unable to hold accountable the perpetrators of these spate of violence, riots or the war that ended in 2009, despite its continued commitments to international organizations – a lack of substantive movement towards accountability pervaded specially in the past decade. The government continues to shield the perpetrators from any form of accountability. Those responsible for anti-Muslim communal violence in Aluthgama in 2014, Digana and Ampara in 2018 and Post Easter in 2019 are still at large. Those responsible at the highest levels of power for allowing Easter Sunday disaster to happen, are also roaming free. What JRJ did in 1983 and blamed the Tamils was repeated almost ad verbatim by Mahinda Rajapaksa when Muslim victims were blamed as perpetrators in respect of the Aluthgama tragedy.
Even today, the ill effects of institutionalised racism and impunity and assaults and harassment of the media and journalists and social media activists , critical of the government and its discriminatory policies have increased. Laws and law enforcement authorities are indifferent and go soft when those connected to the higher echelon of power and those in saffron clothes are involved in hate speeches and racist crimes. The Presidential powers of pardon is being misused to pardon criminals in uniform and in saffron clothes. There seem to be no political will to solve the national question or build a sense of togetherness in communities. After 2009, there is a growing polarization among the communities with minorities feeling alienated and marginalized in the political as well as in the social arena.
In a ICJ report titled The Crisis of Impunity in Sri Lanka (2012), it says, ‘..in Sri Lanka, impunity has over the years become institutionalized and systematized: mechanisms to hold state actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved; institutions to protect the independence of the judiciary have been eviscerated; the Attorney-General has become politicized; and political forces have continually sought to influence and interfere with the judiciary. Blatant disregard for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary has crippled the justice system, leaving victims with little or no prospect of remedies or reparations for serious human rights violations’. Thus, instances of impunity shown above are but part of the story. Unless the crisis of endemic impunity is combated and sorted out, the rot will continue to make Sri Lanka a pariah state subjected to international shame.
As Sri Lanka stands in its own shadow, it should reflect on the harm that impunity and perceived feeling of inequality among minority communities, have caused to its’ international image and the gradual erosion of confidence of its’ people in the process of rule of law. Failing to hold those accountable for their actions, and inactions that lead to harm and loss, and compensate the victims adequately, fails humanity as a whole. Thus, more than 11 years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka is still grappling with its recent past and many challenges remain unresolved and many of the physical, emotional and psychological wounds of war and communal violence remain unhealed.
Perhaps the most enduring lesson of July 1983 should be “never again”. Violent extremism should always be challenged and not allowed to flourish. Entire communities being demonised should stop such as what is happening in the case of the Muslims. Fresh thinking and open minded initiatives are necessary ably promoted by progressive intellectuals and religious leaders and a well-planned strategy to educate the grass-root levels of our society about the need to live and let live as equal citizens. Specially, the peace loving majority community should be made to realize the vicious plans of the political class hell-bent on exploiting their emotions based on their race and religions for petty gains making other minority communities demons who are all out to destroy them. Otherwise, 1983 ghosts will continue to hover and more 1983 style operations will be inevitable.
With many past missed historic opportunities, and more bleeding in the future, Sri Lanka will surely join the ‘Failed States Club’ while the internal and international conspirators will have a last laugh at the expense of the nation, if sanity does not prevail soon in Mother Lanka! Time is running out for the flower of an inclusive Sri Lanka to bloom! If the next parliament consists of the likes of Madu Madhawa, Gammampila and Wimal Weerawansa, and allowed to operate and rule the country on a platform of racism, with the help from rogue sections of the media and Maha Sangha, then it will be death knell for Sri Lanka. The reason why the public activism should renew its efforts not to allow racist politics to take centre-stage in the country!, which is reeling from the wounds of war and hate in particularly the Post war period. After all, politics is too serious to be left in the hands of petty politicians!