The Status of Ethnic Minorities in Post-War Sri Lanka

The Status of Ethnic Minorities in Post-War Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka had a long period of ethnic civil war that lasted for over two decades. During 1983-2009, the island was witness to episodic violence, terror, and bloodshed. The long history of civil war between the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils played a crucial role in shaping the politics of Sri Lanka.  Post-war; with the decimation of the LTTE in the year 2009, it was believed by many that the influence of Tamil Nationalist politics would weaken as people were hopeful for the rise of democratic politics in Sri Lanka.

However, post the war the representation and the status of the ethnic minorities (Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, Malayas and the Burghurs) posed a serious challenge for the government and its ‘native’ people. This was one of the biggest setbacks in the democratic process in Sri Lanka as even after the defeat of the LTTE and the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord (1987), ethnic conflicts surfaced every now and then making it difficult for the government to lay a foundation of a pluralistic, democratic and inclusive polity where war and violence will not be necessary to highlight ethnic grievances or suppress resistance to the State emanating from marginalized ethnic groups.

The central question that lay before the Sri Lankan government in the post-war period was if it was possible to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the aftermath of the government’s military success over the secession. To President Rajapakse (whose tenure lasted between 2005-2015), the political solution to the so-called ‘ethnic problem’ was to wage a ‘war on terrorism’ as he saw the ethnic insurgencies for equality and autonomy as terrorist and fascist in nature. However, given the prolonged civil war in Sri Lanka, many opined that the solution was not military suppression of ethnic minorities but, the creation of a polity in which all ethnic groups could live in dignity, equality and coexistence.

Democracy is popularly perceived as a rule of the majority. In the Sri Lankan context, this kind of majoritarianism was often used to justify discrimination against minorities by advocating policies of exclusion. Rohini Hensman in her article, “Democracy as Solution to Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Crisis”, mentions that  in search for a political solution to the ‘ethnic problem’ devolution has been overemphasized and democracy has been underemphasized by the Sri Lankan government. In such a situation, the conflict between the Sinhalese political elite fighting for a Sinhalese unitary state and the LTTE struggling to establish a Tamil unitary state can be seen as a problem of unwillingness on part of both to share power with each other in their area of jurisdiction. Their goals were irreconcilable not only with each other but also with democracy.

In this regard, inter-communal reconciliation was another big challenge for the State especially after the consequent divisions created by the civil war between the three ethnic communities- the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. To foster the principles of inter-group equality, plurality and power-sharing between the different ethnic communities has not been easy for the Sri Lankan government due to the unwillingness of the majoritarian Sinhalese political parties to implement meaningful reforms to resolve the ethnic problem.

The differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils had surfaced much before the civil war broke out in full swing. The minority Tamils suffered heavily due to the unfair treatment in the hands of the Sinhala-Buddhist groups not only in terms of language and culture but also employment, education, politics etc. Since Independence, the ruling classes in Sri Lanka or the Sinhala-Buddhists have discriminated against ethnic Tamils to consolidate their dominant position on the island. Every attempt on the part of the Sri-Lankan Tamils to achieve a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict ended in disappointment due to which they resorted to violent means to reach the goal of a separate Tamil state. However, it must be noted that the demand for separation was neither the idea of the LTTE leader Prabhakaran nor the leaders of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) who had opted for a separation in 1977; it was the Sinhala-Buddhist dominated government’s rule on anti-minorities policies that led the path to violent separatism.

The Tamils had demanded that they should be granted all the rights and privileges that the Sinhalese as citizens of Sri Lanka enjoyed. However, the aggressive means to suppress such requirements by the hegemonic government resulted in ethnic tensions and militancy. The major issue that laid the ground for the civil war was the debate over the official language of Sri Lanka. Initially, English was granted the official language status in Sri Lanka which was soon removed in favor of the Sinhala language in 1956 as the latter resonated with the sentiments of the majority. Although one-fourth of Sri Lanka’s population were Tamil speakers, the language was not accorded the official status as many believed that two official languages would divide the country and feared that Tamil might take precedence over Sinhala language.

Since 1970, the Sinhala-Buddhists armed forces played an active role in the military operations in Tamil areas bringing forth unprecedented terror and violence. As a result of the indiscriminate killings and unabated bombings nearly 500,000 Tamils were displaced from the North of the island. All this was accompanied by mass arrests, detention, torture, rape and disappearances which further dismantled the relation between the Sinhalese and Tamils. Political organizations like the Janatha Vimukhti Perimuna (JVP) tried to tackle the ethno- political conflict but through a military solution resulting in a mass insurrection in 1971. The JVP rebellion in intensifying the ethnic conflict highlighted the increasing chauvinism of the Sinhalese against the Tamils who were no more than enemies to them. Moreover, in 1979 when the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was passed, it had serious repercussions on the ethnic conflict. The extensive use of PTA in the conflict allowed the police and army to arrest anyone without a warrant, search people and seize documents on suspicion.

The Tamil struggle for independence was internationalized when, in May 1979, the House of Representatives of the State of Massachusetts passed the Eelam Resolution calling for the creation of the Tamil state of Eelam. The Sri-Lankan government turned a deaf ear to the international community and continued with Sinhala ethnocentrism. However, new developments primarily facilitated India to enter into the Sri Lanka’s affairs. The ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka caused tensions between Colombo and New Delhi especially with regards to issues of repatriation and citizenship status of Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka. In August 1981, the Tamil Nadu State Assembly in India passed a resolution unanimously condemning the violence and expressing sympathy with the Sri Lanka Tamils. The Tamil question despite being an internal affair of Sri Lanka by the standards of international law, was a regional issue involving India.

Meanwhile, the resolution did not secure the outcome it had hoped for as the anti-Tamil riots of 1983 pushed out thousands of Tamils out of the southern region and some out of the country. The anti-Tamil riots were seen as a response by the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony to rising Tamil nationalism. This development was twin-faced in its orientation; first was to strengthen the earlier view that the ‘genuine’ Sinhala was a Sinhala Buddhist and all other ethnic and religious community living in Sri Lanka are secondary citizens; second was the denial of a ‘Tamil Problem’, i.e. the denial of any real national grievances of the Tamils as they did not have the traditional claim to the island. In the words of Suriya Gunasekare, a Sinhala ideologue, the Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka to work in plantations and clean wastes. Along with the riots, the passivity of the government in dealing with the increasing ethnic tensions created unrest amongst the Tamils. The Tamils now demanded that their right to self-determination be recognized.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Sri Lankan ethnic conflict attracted more international attention. Much of this was due to the efforts of President Chandrika Kumaratunga who promised to bring peace by a political negotiation as she acknowledged that war was not a solution to end the ethnic violence. Western countries like the U.S.A and Norway pushed both the Sri Lankan ruling class and the LTTE to meet for negotiations. With India’s help, Norway was permitted to facilitate the peace talks between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka to find a political solution based on the cultural and political autonomy without violating sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government’s decision to initiate the talk with the LTTE evoked opposition from the Sinhala-Buddhists religious extremists and nationalists. To them, the political solution to the ethnic conflict would allow Tamils to establish an independent State on the island. The JVP (People’s Liberation Party) too, protested against the resolution demanding Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to retreat. Presently, the so-called ‘unitary’ state system in Sri Lanka has also failed to satisfy the Tamils and is regarded by the latter as an institution oriented towards establishing Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony.

Another ethnic community which was a victim of the violence of the civil war in Sri Lanka were the Muslims. Muslims form a very small fraction of the whole population of Sri Lanka. The need to establish their own separate ethnic identity emerged with Independence as Tamil politicians in order to strengthen their political autonomy in the region would claim that all Muslims were Tamils who converted to Islam. The Muslim political elites vehemently rejected this claim and insisted upon a separate ethnic identity based on religion.

During the 1990’s, the LTTE ethnically cleansed the entire north of Sri Lanka by evicting some 90,000 Muslims. Many Muslims lived in displaced camps in squalid conditions and remained neglected by the State. During the same time in the east of Sri Lanka, Muslims faced a series of attacks by the LTTE who gunned down hundreds of Muslims who were praying in mosques, and they were targets of abduction, extortion, and killings. Nearly one-third of Muslims lived in eastern Sri Lanka, and despite being directly affected by the conflict, they were left out of successive attempts to negotiate peace between the government and the LTTE, including the last Norwegian-led round of negotiations after the ceasefire in 2002.

In recent years, there has been a growing antagonism towards the cultural and religious practices of the Muslims mostly perpetuated by the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups. Occasional ethnic riots targeting Muslims was a standard feature in Sri Lanka, especially in the northern and eastern regions. Along with large-scale displacements, there have been several reported cases of disappearances, killings, abductions and arbitrary arrests of ethnic minorities, especially of Tamils and Muslims.

Farah Mihlar in her article, “The State of Sri Lanka’s Muslims”, notes that the international attention on the humanitarian crisis that emerged in the aftermath of the war resulted in the government making certain guarantees towards the return and resettlement of the recently displaced. However, there is no structured plan to resettle the larger number of those dubbed as “old Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS)” that is those displaced through the course of the country’s three-decade-long conflict. Amongst these 3, 40,000 IDPS are about 1, 00,000 Muslims. (Mihlar 2009)

In eastern Sri Lanka, there were endless reports of cases of intimidation, attack, harassment and extortion of Muslims by Tamil paramilitary groups who were working with the state. For the population, they remained terror figures who conducted many of the large-scale attacks and human rights violations against the Muslims. Paradoxically, there has been much publicity given in the media to Muslim “militant” groups who have been asked to lay down their arms. These groups have been classified as “jihadist” groups, reportedly supported by Muslim countries including Pakistan. However, there is no evidence to support such claims against the ethnic Muslims in Sri Lanka.

Recently on 15th June 2014, in a violent rally led by ultranationalist Buddhist Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) organization, four Muslims were reported dead, about eighty injured and numerous homes and businesses were destroyed in the small town of Aluthgama and its surrounding areas. Although President Rajapakse in his public statement denounced such violence and promised compensation to the victims, no action was taken against those who incited such violence.

In the post-war period, there arises a need for the Sri Lankan government to be accountable for the massive killings during the civil war and see that justice is rendered to all communities. Given the failed attempts of the Sri Lankan state to reconcile relations between the different ethnic groups, the latter now advocate a separate identity and separate state for themselves as they want a system of self-governance that will guarantee them their rights. The international community, especially India advocated for the return and resettlement of displaced, minority rights protection and political autonomy for minorities. The concern on the part of the Muslim community is that, if and when the government acts on these issues, they may only respond to the Tamils and neglect the Muslims. There is an apprehension that this could potentially lead to the deepening of the pre-existent divisions between minorities and sow the seeds for a different type of conflict on the island.

According to the UN High Commissioner’s investigative report on Sri Lanka (2015), there has been progressing in the region regarding the accountability and justice for the victims of international crimes and family members of the dead and disappeared. The Sri Lankan government has accepted several recommendations to improve the human rights situation which include a repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and reforms to the Witness and Victim Protection Law, both long called for by victims’ rights groups. Further, the government has agreed to accelerate the return of lands confiscated by the security forces; to end the divisive military involvement in civilian activities in the country’s north and east; to investigate allegations of attacks on civil society, media, and religious minorities and to work toward devolution of authority from the center in accordance with the 13th amendment to the constitution.

Among the report’s concrete recommendations is the establishment of a special court “integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators” with an independent Sri Lankan investigative and prosecuting body. The endorsement in the resolution under consideration of a judicial mechanism with international participation is an important recognition of the need for an international role to ensure justice for victims.

Although the decimation of the LTTE in 2009 marked the end of the terror of the prolonged civil war in Sri Lanka, ethnic conflicts, and tensions surfaced now and then. To those who envisioned democracy as a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, the widening gaps between the different ethnic communities in the aftermath of the war is a matter of concern as Sri Lanka is yet to achieve a multi-ethnic, pluralistic and inclusive state policy to end discrimination and violence. With the coming of the new government under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena, many are hopeful that the status of the ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka will improve as the new administration promises to implement the UN recommendations to address the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. However, the effectiveness and success of such proposals in the Sri Lankan situation are still unclear as it was difficult to predict what path it may take once implemented.

Avilasha Ghosh
CONTRIBUTOR
PROFILE

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1 Comment

  • sabenegomes@yahoo.com'
    Sabene
    February 7, 2017, 10:28 pm

    I am nowhere near a Sinhala nationalist.. (my family is Christian and Burgher) however even I find this article heavily one sided. There is no mention of the seeds for this division being sowed by the British who through their divide and conquer strategy placed the majority of government and civil society jobs and placements for university in the hands of the minority Tamil population. Nor is their mention of the assassination of the Jaffna mayor or the storming of the army base which led to the abhorrent pogrom of the 1983 riots.

    The thing is, I agree completely that the nationalistic sentiment which has been invoked especially since the end of the war is infringing the pursuit of justice and reconciliation. However to oversimplify the roots of this complex conflict in the way this article does is as dangerous as it is misleading.

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