The war in Sri Lanka spanned over three decades and reached its bloody conclusion in May 2009. Both the UN Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka and a U.K. film entitled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields agreed that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Thousands of men, women and children were killed throughout northern Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war.
Two years later, despite government claims to the contrary, the humanitarian situation has not improved for the Tamil people living in the war-affected Vanni region. According to a 2011 European Commission report, access to humanitarian relief and medical care is hindered and the occupation of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in the northeast does not allow life to return to normalcy.
Even with the alarming death toll and proclamations about the “end of the war,” a sustainable peace is unlikely due to the Sri Lankan government’s rejection of any meaningful political action to address Tamil grievances and the desire for self-determination. The Sri Lankan Defense Minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, stated that he “found no requirement” for a power-sharing deal with the Tamil people in the northeast region of the island “now that the LTTE is gone.” This type of reaction is evidence of the hardline Sri Lankan nationalism that exists within the island and that has prevented peace from being achieved.
The post-colonial Tamil struggle
The independence of Sri Lanka from British colonial rule marked the beginning of the ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese-dominated governments and the minority Tamil population. Mainly residing in the northeastern region of the island, Tamils are distinguished from other groups in the country by their language, religion and culture. During British rule, as a divide-and-conquer tactic, Tamil people were privileged in many areas, including the civil service. This inevitably led to a growing resentment from within the Sinhalese population. When the British left, they handed power to the Sinhalese majority without making any provisions to protect the Tamil people.
As such, consecutive governments took advantage of a strong nationalist movement that was spreading in the Sinhalese south in order to obtain and solidify their power. They often used extremist nationalism to push through discriminatory legislation and the repression of peaceful political resistance.
In 1948, a rightwing government believed that in order to win the next election it had to weaken the leftist movement by disenfranchising the Indian Tamil labourers. They passed a Citizenship Act that denied citizenship to over a million Tamils with South Indian ancestors brought over as plantation labourers by the British. In 1956, under another government with an extreme nationalist agenda, Sinhala was made the official language. Tamils would now be forced to learn Sinhalese or have no influence over civil society. These kinds of laws led the Tamil people to resist what was seen as a direct attack on their cultural heritage.
S.J.V. Chelvanayagam was an influential leader who resisted the discrimination in parliament and mobilized the Tamil people through protests and hunger strikes to demand the equality of the Tamil language, full citizenship rights for all Tamils, an end to state-sponsored settlements and the devolution of state power. Subsequently, the government negotiated a deal to address these issues by giving “reasonable status” to the Tamil language and promising that regional councils would be formed in the northeast.
However, due to pressure from powerful Sinhalese nationalists, the government abolished the pact. In response, the Tamil leadership organized a civil disobedience campaign that stopped the government administration from functioning. A state of emergency was declared and Tamil areas were brought under army control. The Tamil Federal Party was also banned and its leaders brought into custody.
The continuous oppression motivated all of the main Tamil political parties to join forces with Chelvanayagam and form a coalition party called the Tamil United Front — later renamed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). It held its first convention on May 14, 1976 in the Tamil-dominated town of Vaddukkodai, which gave birth to the Vaddukkodai Resolution. The declaration committed to fight for the “restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular Socialist State of Tamil Eelam [homeland] based on the right of self determination inherent to every nation.” In the next election, the TULF ran on a mandate to fight for self-determination through secession, won a strong popular majority, and even became the official opposition party — the first time for the Tamil people. The people no longer felt that a moderate call for change within a federally united Sri Lanka was pragmatic. It was time to call for a separate state as the only practical alternative available to secure their rights and decide their political destiny.
The rise of politico-military Tamil struggle
The riots of Black July 1983 marked a huge turning point in the Tamil struggle. Sinhala rioters attacked Tamil civilians and burned down their stores and homes. Nearly 4,000 Tamils were killed. Closely following the riots, a sixth amendment to the Constitution was made declaring that anyone involved with an organization espousing separatism would lose all civil rights and forced parliamentarians to take an oath pledging not to support any attempts for a separate state. The members of the TULF, unable to take the oath, were forced to give up their parliamentary seats and seek exile in India.
With the repression of peaceful politics coupled with Black July, an influx of Tamil youth started to create and join militant groups. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), founded in 1976, emerged to be the most dominant of the groups. The LTTE waged a war of secession against the Sri Lankan state and adopted an armed struggle to further their mission.
After nearly two decades of fighting, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government signed a cease-fire agreement and entered into internationally-mediated peace talks. During the peace talks, a proposal was made by the LTTE called the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). The ISGA proposal represented a radical shift by expressing a willingness to drop the secessionist demand and to explore a federal solution facilitating regional autonomy and self-government. Most of the Tamil political parties in the island agreed with the proposals laid out in the ISGA, as it was consistent with the Tamil people’s political aspirations. The European Union’s Head of Mission in Colombo declared that the ISGA proposal represented “an important step forward in the peace process.” Once again, the government was presented with a critical opportunity to rectify peacefully the grievances of the Tamil people.
Unfortunately, with an election on the horizon, the government had joined forces with an extremist alliance of rightwing nationalists, who ruled out negotiating with Tamils as a matter of principle. Unwilling to budge, they refused to consider a restructured and equitable state by proscribing the ISGA as “unacceptable” and “not negotiable” despite the Tigers’ cautioning that, if the ISGA were denied, they would have no alternative other than to resume the call for an independent state to secure self-determination. Yet again, Sri Lankan nationalism would keep the battle from ending despite a major political concession. The war continued and ended with the death of thousands of civilians.
The war is over but the political grievances are not
The end of the war in 2009 does not mean that the Tamil people are now free from violence, discrimination and destruction. Even now, Tamil homes, businesses and properties are still being occupied by the Armed Forces. Political prisoners are being held in secret detention with no access to their families or legal counsel. Tamil students must join the Armed Forces through mandatory military service. Those released from internment camps are often sent to smaller camps or return to their villages only to live in tents, because their houses still have not been re-built.
And although the government has promised to deliver a political solution to the Tamil question, recent announcements by cabinet ministers reveal that there is no real commitment to this. Nimal Siripal, a cabinet minister, declared in parliament that the government is opposed to any type of federal solution to devolve political power to the Tamil people. Moreover, although the Tamil National Alliance was given a popular mandate (winning 20 out of 25 seats in recent elections), the government-controlled elections commission is attempting to eliminate Tamil parliamentary seats in the North to weaken representation. The government of Sri Lanka permanently recreates the basis for resistance.
The government’s failure to support the Tamil people after the war will guarantee another round of oppression and bloodshed. The political struggle for Tamil self-determination seems to confirm Carl Von Clausewitz’s observation that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” Until the Sri Lankan government demonstrates a willingness to accommodate the Tamils’ legitimate demand for self-determination, history will all too predictably continue to repeat itself.
Krisna Saravanamuttu is a member of the national executive of the National Council of Canadian Tamils and serves as its spokesperson. A criminology student at York University, Krisna is also a leading activist in the student movement in Ontario.