Sad Tale of Sri Lanka Tamils-What happened and what needs to be done?

By: Dr G K Nathan

Sri Lanka Tamils worldwide have a strong affinity towards India, most of them follow with interest actions taken by or policy of the Government of India to advance an equitable solution to the long standing Sinhala-Tamil conflict; as well as take notice of views of political parties of different persuasions, writings and media presentations of opinion makers in India with a glimpse of hope that India’s intervention will bring about a just outcome.

The current situation is due to four and a half centuries of colonial rule by Portuguese, Dutch and finally British who thought that the proposed Sri Lanka constitution at the time of Independence in 1948, provided protection to minority communities: Eelam Tamils (one of the original group of inhabitants, mainly Hindus), Upcountry Tamils (Indentured labour brought to work in plantation industry starting from the nineteenth century, mainly Hindus), Muslims (number of groups of Islamic faith arrived over many centuries, but majority is Tamil speaking) and Burghers (mixed race between Europeans and local people of Christian faith).

Unfortunately, Sinhala majority community failed to respect or accommodate the rights of other groups; immediately after Independence, almost half of the Upcountry Tamils were disenfranchised, started the state aided colonization, later denied language, educational and political rights of minorities; also changed the constitution twice further marginalizing the minorities rights’. Above acts happened because Britain failed to incorporate rigorous safeguards in the constitution for the protection of rights of minorities; furthermore the constitution did not meet the needs of multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious groups in Sri Lanka. This led to Sinhala-Tamil conflict, started with peaceful protests that were oppressed and culminated with Tamil youths taking up arms; the early phase of armed conflict was supported by Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister of India, finally in 2008 India collaborated with Sri Lanka in ending the military conflict.

During the three decades long armed conflict and based on available published estimates, minimum casualties are put at: killed (100,000), maimed (30,000), widowed (85,000) and also large scale destruction of infrastructure and means of livelihood during the conflict over the past six decades, left them as destitute. Everyone who has followed and others who have experienced this catastrophe is hoping for a fresh initiative from the International community to resolve the six decades long Sinhala-Tamil conflict.

Erosion of Sri Lanka Tamils’ Rights under International Watch

Implementation of adverse changes against Sri Lanka Tamils, immediately after Independence in 1948, gives an impression that deprivation of minorities rights was very well planned prior to Independence and tactfully executed by Sinhala Polity, contrary to promises given to the minorities and to the British rulers, prior to Independence. India as an immediate neighbor to Sri Lanka, with a substantial number of Tamils in Tamil Nadu, showed interest in the affairs of Sri Lanka; later Sinhala-Tamil conflict attracted the attention of the World, but limited reactions failed to stop the onslaught on minorities for the last six decades.

North East Sri Lanka (homeland ofTamils, name Eelam is 2000 years old) has been recognized as Tamil homeland during 450 years of and prior to colonial rule; the differences were recognized and Tamil homeland was ruled separately from the majority Sinhala Buddhist territory. After the British colonial power unified the Island wide administration into one in 1833, there was voluntary internal migration of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities within Sri Lanka; there was general acceptance and peaceful interaction among all communities accommodating each other.

Disenfranchisement of a section of citizens, starting of state aided colonization of Eastern Sri Lanka, passing of the “Sinhala only act” in 1956 and emphasis on Buddhism at the expense of other religions heightened the differences, poisoned the minds of the people and destroyed the communal harmony.

Over five decades of Sinhala-Tamil conflict led to the migration of about a million Tamils; resulting in the establishment of prosperous migrant EelamTamils community in Western countries, which increased the awareness of Western Nations to events in Sri Lanka. Migration of Tamils and disenfranchisement of Upcountry Tamils led to Sinhala Polity with sixty-forty representation in the parliament at the time of Independence to increase their representation to seventy five – twenty five with respect to minorities; which is more than two-third majority required to change the constitution and without the support of minorities. This in turn led to scrapping of the 1948 constitution with that deleted section 29(2) ensuring rights of minorities; proclamation of 1972 constitution was carried out without the consent of Tamils which consolidated Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony over the Island discarding multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious composition of Sri Lanka. Once again in 1978 adoption of a powerful presidential system of government with two six-year periods further marginalized the power of the minorities. This year the 18th amendment to the constitution was adopted to make it possible to set-up a life time presidency with all powers concentrated in the office of President;

President Rajapaksa’s regime is further marginalizing the minorities by setting up military rule in the Northern and Eastern provinces with military governors, after the end of military conflict. Also successive Governments of Sri Lanka (GSL) have failed to fully implement the 13th amendment introduced in 1987 persuaded by India. Reluctance and partial implementation of past agreements by successive GSL are clear signs that President Rajapaksa will not fully implement it either; because the Sinhala chauvinists who are supporting him to keep him in power with two-third majority in the Parliament do not want it, for him retention of the absolute power is more important than resolving the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. Conflict over a long period has left about half a million Tamils displaced from their original home; Indian Congress Parliamentarians who recently visited the Tamil Eelam has called upon the Indian Government to send their officials to supervise the return of the Internally Displaced People (IDP) to their original homes, is a timely reminder of the status of affairs in the North East Sri Lanka. Similar sentiments have been expressed by visiting EU Parliamentarians. Will the International community ignore and allow the regime to continue with or take appropriate action to bring about changes so that all communities can live in peace and harmony with equal rights?

Emboldened by their success against Upcountry and other Tamils who have been totally marginalized; recently, attention to Muslim community has come to notice, a community that has been politically subservient to the Government in power all this time and mainly focusing on their trade related activities throughout the Island. The recent attack on the mosque and the Muslims’ heightened tension is one recent example.

Tamils’ Struggle and India’s Role

Indian leaders succeeded in holding different linguistic and religious groups together and forming an Indian identify with a quasi-federal constitution acceptable to multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious communities; similar efforts in Sri Lanka were never taken we have only illusive peace under a unitary system of government imposed by the military. Initially, Tamils only wanted to be accepted as citizens with equal rights to live beside the Sinhala people, but both Sinhala political parties use of communal politics to capture power from each other sacrificing the rights of Tamil polity, which made it impossible to find a peaceful solution. India’s attempt to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka differently, to liberation of Bangladesh was a failure due to rejection of India’s efforts by Sinhala polity; the problem is still lingering on and India’s past efforts over six decades can be grouped into three distinct periods. A critical review of India’s past role in Sri Lanka may help to understand what should be the future approach.

The first period, termed as: “Non-interventionist but patronizing”, lasted for a quarter of a century starting from Independence in 1948 and to the worst pogrom that occurred in July 1983. During this period, India turned a blind eye to victimization of Sri Lanka Tamils. The sad story started in the first year of Independence itself; about a million Upcountry Tamils was disenfranchised and became stateless losing all their democratic rights in Sri Lanka and India submissively accepted the repatriation of stateless Upcountry Tamils to Tamil Nadu by signing of Srimavo-Shastri pact in 1964. Treating of Tamil Eelam issue differently to Bangladesh may have been due to fearing of separatists call from groups in Tamil Nadu and to keep Sinhala Polity within India’s sphere of influence. Patronizing the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) for two decades and ignoring the suffering of Sri Lanka Tamils did not give the expected outcome, but at crunch time during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, Sri Lanka sided with Pakistan and allowed planes to refuel in Sri Lanka. Soon after the Srimavo - Indira Gandhi pact was signed in 1974 and handed over Kachchativu to Sri Lanka, in practice rights of Indian fishermen to fish in the region is being denied. Probably, the success of Sri Lanka in achieving two key landmark decisions in their favour with little opposition have encouraged Sri Lanka to continue with their scheme to marginalization of Sri Lanka Tamils.

The second period is the shortest of the three where “India’s Interventionist and assertive role” started following July 1983 pogrom and ended with Rajiv Gandhi’s murder in 1991. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s intervention started with the support of the Tamil youths’ militancy, providing a space for Tamil Diaspora and Sri Lanka Tamil politicians to work from India. Tamils’ hoped that India will pursue a path similar to that was taken with respect Bangladesh was dashed with untimely death of Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi followed in the footsteps of his mother, persuaded Sri Lanka President JR Jayewardene to sign Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on 29 July 1987. The next day while receiving the honour guard he was assaulted on the head by a Sinhala naval cadet; the omen was not a good start for the future of this accord. The agreement led to adoption of the 13th Amendment establishing Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka and sending of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Failure of India’s attempt to bring a good outcome was outwitted by wily and seasoned politician President Jayewardene and his advisers. This was not helped in the absence of a workable strategy between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and India. Sri Lanka President’s war with LTTE was fought by IPKF led to loss of over 1000 IPKF soldiers and during this conflict also about 5000 civilians and LTTE fighters died; IPKF withdrew from Sri Lanka in March 1990. In 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was killed at an election rally by a suicide bomber, allegedly planned and executed by LTTE. The two deaths that occurred during the critical period of Tamils struggle for equal rights and recognition, which shook the foundation of amiable relationship between India and Eelam Tamils.

The third period extends over three decades which can be referred to as “Inaction to collaboration with GSL” started after the death of Rajiv Gandhi. The failure of Indian politicians to differentiate between the alleged involvement of LTTE with the murder of Rajiv Gandhi and the Tamils ended up in a unspeakable tragedy for Sri Lanka Tamils, during this period. Furthermore, declaration of LTTE as a banned organization in India was followed by 27 other countries and India keeping Sri Lankan Tamils too at arm’s length encouraged successive GSL, in the guise of fighting terrorism, to subject the Tamils to military offensive causing death and destruction, as India remained silent. One such event was in July 1995 Sri Lankan air forces bombed a church and a school in Navaly in Jaffna, killing 125 innocent Tamil civilians. In another historical event in October 1995, due to large scale artillery shelling and aerial bombardment about 400,000 people moved out of Jaffna Peninsula carrying little of their belongings to the mainland administered by LTTE seeking safety, later most of the Tamils returned to Jaffna. In 2000 LTTE established a de-facto state covering about two-third of the land mass of Tamil Areasand also controlled the adjoining sea, which opened up a sea route. During this period, a Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) between GSL and LTTE was signed twice both time failed to bring about peace but death and destruction continued. Internationally arranged CFA was signed in 2002 between GSL and LTTE with Norway as the facilitator and co-sponsored by US, EU and Japan; while India waited on the sideline. Soon after President Rajapaksa came to power in 2005, the final phase of war between GSL and LTTE started and GSL emerged victorious on 18 May 2009, but at what cost? During the last four years of war, there is alleged involvement of India in the war against LTTE by providing intelligence and related materials.

Failure of past governments of India to take note of “Mahavamsa mindset of Sinhala Polity” and to understand what a journalist has said “Sinhala Buddhism is worlds apart from the tolerant non-violent Buddhism of the Gautama Buddha” did not help to find an equitable solution to Sinhala-Tamil conflict. This was also substantiated in the writing of Mr MK Badhrakumar, former Indian Diplomat, in an article written on 19 May 2009 under the title: “Blood on our hands, but this too shall pass”. It is important that any country attempting to advance a solution in Sri Lanka pay attention to the findings given below, but need to challenge them to find an equitable solution to the conflict.

Mr Bhadhrakumar says about India’s guilt that “All the pujas we may perform to our favourite Lord Ganesh each morning and evening religiously before we march ahead in our life from success to success cannot wash away the guilt we are bearing -- the curse of the 70,000 dead souls. Our children and grandchildren will surely inherit the great curse.” He also said in his latest article “India pursued a cold-blooded policy of helping the Sri Lankan armed forces to decimate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It was sweet revenge for the LTTE's murder of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. To distance itself clinically at this point from the river of blood that flowed in Sri Lanka, therefore, becomes problematic”. Since the 13th Amendment initiated by India was adopted in 1987; Sri Lanka had four Presidents, two each from both major parties and they did not resolve the conflict as India expected. They succeeded in getting India and LTTE to fight each other; as said earlier Sinhala Polity “Always lived by their wits”. To absolve itself from the problematic past, India need to seek multilateral actions through UN, emulating the success in other countries of similar composition as Sri Lanka, where all groups have equality and same rights by sharing power. Unfortunately experiment with unitary system of government started by Britain has been mortally wounded.

President Rajapaksa’s War and Victory over Tamils

Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected in 2005 as the President of Sri Lanka; ironically LTTE’s call to the people of Tamil Eelam to boycott the Presidential election helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to emerge as the victor with a wafer thin majority, if not for that boycott the story of Sri Lankan Tamils would have been very different. Soon after swearing-in as President of Sri Lanka, the war started between LTTE which had set-up a de-facto state and GSL. In 2006, the High Court of Sri Lanka declared both, the administrative structure set up with tri-partite agreement between GSL, LTTE and Muslims to undertake reconstruction work on damages caused by 2004 Tsunami and the unification of North - East as one council under the 13th Amendment were invalid. This happened in pursuant of action brought by Sinhala groups that has always stood in the way of finding mutually acceptable solution to the conflict, which are currently supporting President Rajapaksa regime; future prospects are not good. After the High Court verdict, the war on the Eastern part of the de-facto Tamil state was intensified and fell to the government forces in 2007; encouraged by that victory in the East, and probably with India’s tacit support in 2008, President Rajapaksa unilaterally abrogated the CFA and assault on Northern de-facto state was intensified. Artillery attack and aerial bombardment took place after representatives from International organizations were evicted from the conflict zone apparently for their own safety; it also helped to conduct the war without witnesses. The war came to an end on 18 May 2009 with capturing of de-facto state of Tamils amid numerous deaths and destruction.

During the military conflict President Rajapaksa repeatedly made public announcement underestimating the number of people trapped in the conflict zone, thus justifying the ban of supply of food and medicine to the conflict zone by INGOs. Many countries voiced their concern during the war for the welfare and safety of the people within the conflict zone, but gave reassurance the war is being conducted with “zero civilian casualty”. What emerged after the end of conflict was that International and International Human Rights Laws were breached; GSL armed forces continued indiscriminate artillery fire and aerial bombardment resulted in heavy civilian causalities put at 40,000 killed, unknown numbers of people maimed and about 300,000 displaced people emerged from the conflict zone; contrary to President Rajapaksa’s earlier claims.

President of Sri Lanka and United Nation Secretary General at the conclusion of UNSG’s visit to Sri Lanka on 23 March 2009 issued a Joint Statement which "underlined the importance of an accountability process" and the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) agreed that it “will take measures to address those grievances". Following that declaration and after a long delay, two bodies were set up to report back as to what happened during the last stages of the military conflict to promote reconciliation between the two communities. Though both reports have been published one by the Panel of Experts set up by UNSG on 31 March 2011 and Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by President Rajapaksa on 14 December 2011; to date GoSL has not taken any steps to implement any of the findings. Other recent examples of broken promises are: The External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishnan visited in January 2012 and the leader of the opposition Ms Sushma Swaraj in April 2012 as part of the Indian Parliamentary delegation, both made announcements that the President of Sri Lanka has undertaken to implement the 13th amendment plus and has promised the withdrawal of military from the Tamil Eelam; as soon as leaders left the shores and within 24 hours all the promises purportedly made were denied. President Rajapaksa, during his regime, has made numerous promises, to world leaders, but none has been implemented giving the impression that he has his own agenda and hopes the world will forget and not pursue him for his breaches; while he enjoys the confidence of Sinhala Buddhists majority.

Soon after, President Rajapaksa assumed power and became the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, numerous human rights violations were reported and due to International pressure eight member Commission of Inquiry (COI) headed by Justice Udalagama was set-up in November 2006 to look into 16 most serious cases. An International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) headed by Justice P N Bhagawati of India was setup to observe the proceedings of public inquiry to ensure the acceptability of the finding of COI; as requested by the International community to ensure a fair judicial process. IIGEP dissatisfied with the proceedings withdrew after issuing a damning statement of the judicial process in Sri Lanka, which clearly demonstrated under this regime no justice can be expected. The Military conflict ended on May 2009 and term of COI ended abruptly on June 2009; during this period seven cases were investigated, but reports for five cases were submitted to President Rajapaksa, almost three years have passed no follow-up actions have been taken regarding the findings. Two well publicized cases investigated by COI are related to war crimes: killing of 17 aid workers of the French INGO Action Contre Le Faim in Mutur and the killing of five youths in Trincomalee by the armed forces received wide publicity and are being pursued elsewhere.

Post Military Conflict Possible Paths

From what has happened up to now under this regime, not much can be expected in the way of outcome from implementing reports from LLRC and UNSG’s Experts Panel, though these reports attracted the attention and commendation of the World. Finding of the Experts panel report has been corroborated by other reports by International Human Rights organizations like AI, HRW, ICG and WWW. The Channel 4 broadcast of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” in June 2011 and “Sri Lanka Killing Fields – War Crimes Unpunished” in March 2012, based on video clips from the conflict zone have put across to the world that war crimes and crimes against humanity did take place. The LLRC report was welcomed by the World leaders, but failed to address the issues raised in the Expert Panels report such as alleged war crimes and crime against humanity. Nevertheless the report has called on the GSL to address: governance, devolution, socio economic development, livelihood issues etc, but dismissed that GSL has breached International Humanitarian Laws. Human Rights Organizations pointed out LLRC lacked credibility in four main areas: inadequate mandate, lack of independence, lack of witness protection and past commissions’ failures. UNSG’s Expert Panel based on their findings, has called on UNHRC to revisit the resolution passed on the 27 May 2009; this resolution was passed nine days after the end of conflict before all the evidences were available, the call is well justified.

There are more than sufficient evidence that International and International human rights Laws have been breached and the call for an Independent International Inquiry on what occurred during the conflict from all Western Nations and International organizations is getting louder, unfortunately Central Government of India is not in the same group, but many in India led by Tamil Nadu endorse that call. In a recent speech in the Sri Lanka Parliament Mr MA Sumanthiran cast doubts on implementation of the LLRC report by the GSL and said loud and clear that there is a greater need for an International Independent Inquiry. The US State Department has published situation reports on Sri Lanka and called on the GSL to take actions to implement the findings of UNSG’s Panel of Experts and the report of LLRC appointed by President Rajapaksa, the failure to act and intransigent of GSL made the USA to take the initiative and pass another resolution at UNHRC 19th session on 22 March 2012, co-sponsored by 40 countries. The USA has said that LLRC failed to address accountability and war crimes, which need to be addressed by GSL.

The UNHRC resolution calls the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations made in the report of the LLRC; to take all necessary additional steps to fulfill its relevant legal obligations and commitment to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans. The motion was supported by 24 countries made up of all South American and European countries except Russia, two African countries and India the only one from Asia; while 8 abstained and 15 opposed. India for the first time broke away from the Asian block and supported the resolution; this initiative to identify with countries which uphold human and political rights of oppressed nations is a good start. India with six decades of failed experience with different GSL should follow a new path commensurate with its positions in the World and works with other Western Nations; India has to show leadership and adopt paths pursued by Late Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.

Sad tale of Sri Lanka Tamils that started six decades ago is continuing; currently the Sri Lankan Tamils are experiencing additional militarization, marginalization, sinhalicization and colonization of their homeland, since the end of military conflict on 18 May 2009, which need to be halted! It is important that accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides to the conflict is determined through any available mechanism. Perhaps this will help to advance peace and resolve the Sinhala-Tamil conflict once and for all. World looks to President Rajapaksa to implementation of the UNHRC resolution; failure to do so means other options have to be considered: application of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights through UN or International intervention in Sri Lanka, method successfully used in the Middle East recently. Knowing the past, only International intervention will bring a peaceful settlement in Sri Lanka with multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual communities; there are many countries with such a composite population of people living in harmony and peace; sharing power among different groups.

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