Sri Lanka’s nearly three decades of civil war left behind a violent history. Since 2009, Sinhalese and Tamils are officially at peace. But in fact, these two ethnic groups may not have completely settled their accounts. Damiano Raveenthiran, a Canadian journalist from the Tamil community, talks about the conflict that has plagued the country for 30 years.
Sri Lanka is an island located in the South of India and is surrounded by the mighty Indian Ocean. Although Sri Lanka is home to many cultures and languages, the ethnic composition of Sri Lanka has two main facets: the majority “Sinhalese”–compromising 74.9% of the total population– and the major minority “Tamil”–constituting 11.2% of country’s population
In the year 1983, a civil war sprawled the island when Tamil rebels working under the umbrella of an organization called “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)” confronted the Sri Lankan government.
As in any conflict, it is difficult to assign responsibility of offensive on any of the belligerents amidst the blame game. However, in this case I have a first-hand experience of the conflict; since I belong to the minority “Tamil” ethnic group of Sri Lanka, this civil war always remained close to me. Although I was very young when the tensions broke down, recalling the events and assessing them under the periscope of facts, figures and available independent research, made the task of finding the roots of war a little easier.
One of the reasons for the Tamil antipathy towards the Sri Lankan government–which eventually caused the war was the inadequacy of opportunities for the Tamils to acquire education. The doors of the bases of higher education–universities–remained close to many Tamils, as admission in universities remained the sole right of majority Sinhalese. In 2001, Ampara and Nuwara Eliya–two major Tamil provinces–had the lowest literacy rate in Sri Lanka.
The other factor which played an important role in fanning the flames of animosity between the Tamils and the government was the lack of employment opportunities for the Tamils. Tamils claimed that even in the districts where they had the majority, jobs for their people remained scarce.
In fear of secessionist movement that the Tamils had launched, the government employed inhumane and barbaric means to curb it. Amnesty international (AI) in the year 1993 published a report which observed “disappearances, torture, political imprisonment, intimidation, and extrajudicial killings” on the part of government. The Sri Lankan government was also accused by many international organizations in its grotesque attempts to censor the working of independent media.
It must, however, be admitted that there were many violations of human rights on the part of Tamil fighters as well, but they dwarfed in the face of state sponsored brutality. My mother shared with me one such horrendous incident of government’s atrocity. According to her, in 1984, the military ransacked her village in search of any supporter of the LTTE. The government forces wanted to ensure that no one fought for an independent Tamil Land.
They rushed into my mother’s neighboring house and kidnapped all the sons of the family. Before leaving, they showed the neighborhood what would happen if anyone was associated with the LTTEs. They took the older son to the streets, beat him nearly to death in front of his own family, placed electric wires under his fingernails and electrocuted him to death.
The War had practically ended in 2009 with the killing of the LTTE’s leader, but the government’s policies went through little change in the years to come. After the end of this 27-year long war, the international community started pressing Sri Lanka to initiate long-overdue reconciliation and reform processes. The United Nations and rights groups have also accused the government of killing thousands of civilians and enforced disappearances in the final weeks of the war. The United Nations launched a probe into these alleged war crimes in 2014 but the government of then President resisted and even denied UN officials entry to the Island Nation.
After the 2015 Presidential election, the incumbent government promised the United Nations Human Rights Council to address justice and accountability issues and initiate a nation-wide consultation process to find ways to deliver answers. Human Rights Watch has, however, deplored that the report of the Consultation Task Force- the product of extensive national consultations- has been dismissed by the government officials at the highest level as an ‘NGO report’. Moreover, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act which has largely been used throughout the war as an instrument to subject dissidents to torture and enforced disappearances, and extend immunity to security forces is yet to be repealed.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful island nation but it struggles with a dark history that, for too many, isn’t too far. Things such as the thousands of bodies that went missing after the final months of the war, something that has left a countless amount of Tamil families wondering where their loved ones have disappeared to is still a major unresolved issue.
Human Rights Watch has observed that as recently as 2017, police practices such as torture of detainees and dissidents of the government going missing was still a practice well used in Sri Lanka. In addition, many Tamil families have been displaced to other countries and the government still has not given back a lot of the land that was taken during the war. It also seems that military occupation of Tamil majority areas is still going on and has resulted in a few murders over the past few years that the government has covered up.
It is vital that people who experienced these brutalities and world that saw lopsided vision of the conflict strive in this age of social media advancement to bring to light what remained in the darkness.
For a complete report on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, click here.