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Lessons From Sri Lanka – I




By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, March 25, 2016


National reconciliation requires justice and trust

The calm that prevails in Jaffna – the capitol of the northern province of Srilanka – masks a simmering resentment with the central government, unease with the presence and highhanded tactics of nearly 150,000 troops, and uncertainty about the future of the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern parts of the country.

Political conversations here signal the urgency of a closure – or settlement – of issues that underlie the Tamil discontent.  A big lesson for all post-conflict societies, it seems, is that long-standing causes of conflict do not go away if they are solved only through hard power and cosmetic measures.

They see every Tamil as a potential separatist

Jaffna and other northern territories, though slowly recovering from the unrest of Tamil insurgency, continue to see demands for investigation into the bloody assault against the Tamil group LTTE in May 2009, which also took out its iconic leader Prabhakaran in controversial circumstances.

Justice Vigneshwaran, who became the consensus chief minister of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) –the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Irish Sinn Fein in 2013 – is spearheading the northern province’s recovery and return to normalcy.  In a meeting with a delegation consisting of Pakistani, Kashmiri (both sides) and Japanese academics, activists and intellectuals, at his extremely austere and virtually unguarded office, Vigneshwaran laid bare some of the facts surrounding the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), and explained the evolution of the situation since Prabhakaran’s elimination. After Prabhakaran’s death, the Sri Lankan army had declared victory against the separatist outfit that had traumatized the entire peninsula for nearly three decades through spectacular land and amphibian Kamikaze attacks.

The quiet lush green Tamil areas – such as Vaupunia, Kilinochchi, Puthukkudiyiruppa and Pudumathalan, all situated between the roughly 400-kilometer Colombo-Jaffna stretch – were once the battlefields where the LTTE and the military fought. Until the final battle in the middle of May 2009, the Vadduvakal causeway served as the boundary between the rebels and the military. The capture of this causeway coincided with Prabhakaran’s elimination, and marked the end of the final battle, led by the 58th and 59th divisions of the Sri Lankan army.


The imposition of Singhalese as an official language in 1956, denial of due share in central services, and systematic removal of senior Tamil officials (because they didn’t know Singhalese language or because of suspected loyalty) were the key reasons behind the Tamil resentment. Singhalese, spoken by some 74 percent Sri Lankans, was the initial trigger for the Tamil outrage, similar to how Bengalis in the former East Pakistan showed resistance when Urdu was declared Pakistan’s national language.

The Tamils believed the center retained control over them through key administrative positions, and did not allow the region to raise its own funds, and that is why they began to look for international support to be recognized as a distinct ethnic group, says the chief minister. He accuses the center of “systematically colonizing Tamil lands.”

The Sri Lankan army is seen as illegally occupying 65,000 acres of local land, mostly for agricultural purposes, and selling the produce at one thirds of the market price while the owners of the land live as internally displaced people in Jaffna, and some parts of India. Even fishermen from the south are being settled in the Tamil regions, under the protection of the army.

Demilitarization, therefore, is one of the major demands. Nobody wants so much military presence around them. They see the military as a predator, gradually encroaching upon their interests and expanding its tentacles.

One big post-conflict issue is the spirit of reconciliation and reconstruction. The government was swift to initiate rehabilitation and construction of new infrastructure, including roads leading into Jaffna. But the real precondition for reconciliation and compensation is an investigation into what Tamils insist was a ruthless massacre seven years ago, locals say.

Without the due process of law and investigation, justice is not possible, says the chief minister, citing the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa as an example. In Sri Lanka, he says, the army and the central government are meting out a “step-motherly treatment” to Tamils – as if the country belonged only to the Singhalese.

Tamil nationalists are pushing for what they call a new social contract. A 30-member Tamil People’s Council, consisting of the chief minister and representatives from leading political parties, the academia and the civil society – apparently a brainchild of the chief minister himself – is supposed to be the vehicle for achieving the objective.

Academics such as Dr Saravanapavan, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce at the University of Jaffna, say the Singhalese will have to end the “tyranny of majority.”

The goal of the TPC is to collectively lobby for national rights through a federal structure instead of the current unitary form of government, says Dr Saravanapavan. The council has already put together a set of recommendations and is currently lobbying to create ownership for this endeavor.

They consider the current constitutional framework flawed and are demanding a return to the demarcation of northern and eastern provinces as “Tamil people’s territorial unit” under the 1978 constitution.

Prof S Sivakanthan of the University of Jaffna says the LTTE movement has been suppressed on the face of it, but the causes that it championed are still there. While a majority of Tamils remains wary of the center, the central government and the Sri Lankan military see every Tamil as a potential separatist. This is the invariable consequence of a long-drawn war and seriously impedes trust building between the center and Jaffna.

“If the center continues to distrust us and India remains indifferent, we may see another insurgency in 15 years,” warns the chief minister. National cohesion is only possible with trust, he tells his visitors from Kashmir, India and Pakistan. “If Colombo keeps looking at us with suspicion and keeps denying us our due rights, the frustrated youth will pick up guns once again.” To be continued…

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk