To a packed room of London university students, panellists Thusiyan Nandakumar of the Tamil Youth Organisation UK (TYOUK), Fred Carver of Sri Lanka Campaign, Madurika Rasaratnam of Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) and Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group (ICG) discussed the question – ‘Sri Lanka: Genocide?’.
The event held on 13th November was chaired by Professor Neil Mitchell (International Relations, UCL) and hosted by the Amnesty International society at University of College London University (UCLU).
Criticising the conduct of the Sri Lankan state over the past three years, Alan Keenan of the ICG described the government’s killing of civilians as “not accidental”. The “machine” the Sri Lankan government used to fight the LTTE said Keenan, “what we might call state terror” has been “actively chugging along since the end of the war.” He continued, “the hope was that with the end of the war, the apparatus to destroy dissent would be put away or could be slowly cranked down. Unfortunately it hasn’t.”
“The idea of genocide is useful to understand the past, the present and the future of Sri Lanka. The label of genocide captures the process that has occurred in the post-independence Sri Lanka. If you look at post-2009 and the policies that were in place in the 60s and 70s there is absolute continuity.”
Highlighting the “Sinhala Buddhist transformation of state, society and economy”, as well as an ongoing process of colonisation, and militarisation of the North-East, Rasaratnam argued that “fixing Sri Lanka needs to be understood in terms of confronting the entrenched Sri Lankan Buddhist idealogy [and] affirming that Tamils have a right to exist as a nation, with a right to self-determination.”
“Why is the Sri Lankan state committing human rights violations? It’s not because it is a human rights violator per se, but because it is a means to an end [Sinhala Buddhist state formation]”
“Militarisation cannot be understood except as part of this rolling process of state formation”.
As to whether the size of Sri Lanka’s massive all-Sinhala military reflects a response to unemployment, Rasaratnam pointed out that Sri Lanka’s actions differed significantly from other conflicted states with unemployment. Nigeria, for example, “did not increase their miliary, and presumably they too have issues with unemployment.”
Stressing the need for justice, Fred Carver of Sri Lanka Campaign said, “many, many people have a fear of trying to get genocide to be taken seriously, but I don’t think we should be scared.” Outlining his own personal view – “I think there is a possibility it is genocide”, Carver said that nonetheless it should not be activists that call it a genocide first, but academics. “What happened in the final days of the war may well fit genocide in a Srebrenica sense”, he continued, “but equally there could be an argument made that when the LTTE forced the Muslims out, that could be a cultural genocide. Or the JVP up-rising.”
Thusiyan Nandakumar of the TYO UK argued that “genocide is not a single explosion of violence”, but a longer term process with “peaks of violence”.
“If you look at the act of 2009, it had all happened before. That machinery and mechanism was in place long before the LTTE came into being. And now what you’re seeing post-2009, is increased militarisation and colonisations.”
Dismissing the notion of the situation in the island being one of only human rights violations, Nandakumar said,
“If you take the ethnic dimension out of it, it is to white wash what is happening. Tamils are disproportionately targeted, and it is exactly because they are Tamil. Even the targeting of Sinhalese journalists and activists was often precisely because of their work towards publicising atrocities towards Tamils… because they are seen to be undermining the Sinhala Buddhist project. Any threats to challenge this Sinhala Buddhist hegemony are dealt with even if it comes from the Sinhalese.”
“If you look now at May 18th, it’s still seen as a day of celebration in the South. For the Tamils it is a day of mourning. There is this divide, this gap in what is happening. There are even differences in the way that the state deals with unrest. There was an incident where the Sinhalese protested against the death of a Sinhalese inmate. Compare that to the government’s response to Tamils protesting against the grease devil attacks last year. The Tamils were rounded up and taken to the army, and many were assaulted by the military.”
Asked by a member of the audience, what would be the Sri Lankan government’s counter to arguments presented by the panellists, Alan Keenan said,
“They would say, ‘we are not colonising the north’. But there is certainly a cultural assault on the North. It has been been a hundred percent Tamil speaking for centuries”.
Listing examples of colonisation such as the reversal of road sides, and state aided settlements in the North-East, Keenan noted,
“the government would say we are ‘developing the north’. The problem is, who benefits? Who is doing it and who benefits? And it is certainly not the long term interests of the Tamils that the government has.”
“The problem is, who benefits. Who is doing it, and who benefits. And it is certainly not the long term interests of Tamils that the GoSL has.”
“I would certainly agree with Madurika that the goverment of Sri Lanka is a Sinhala nationalist government. Institutionalised to develop the sinhala interests, and it certainly enjoys popular support by the Sinhala.”
“And it is destroying the material conditions in the north, that the Tamils would use to demonstrate the Tamils have a special status for some kind of autonomy.”
“It is clear to me and anyone who understands this that that is their central policy.”
“Sinhala nationalist agenda to destroy the basis of Tamil nationalism. To destroy the ability of Tamils to say that we are a nation.”
In a written statement that was read out Yolande Foster of Amnesty International’s South Asian desk said,
We released a press release after the Sri Lankan UPR criticising recent attacks on lawyers and the judicary.
On 5 November, Amnesty International supported the visit of Dr Manoharan, father of Ragihar Manoharan, to bring his fight for justice to the attention of UN member states at the Human Rights Council.
I would like to take this opportunity to say that Amnesty International approaches the issue of what happened in the armed conflict and the months afterwards through the lens of international human rights law & international humanitarian law (IHL).
The term genocide can be used for political purposes or as a rhetorical flourish or can be expressed in a heartfelt way by victims themselves.
Amnesty International’s description of the violations that have happened must come from empirical evidence – evidence that would stand up in a court of law, so we speak about alleged war crimes and violations of IHL.
I think it is vital that an Amnesty International event on Sri Lanka also refers to the human rights of all Sri Lankans in the country – attacks on Sinhala journalists and lawyers, widespread custodial torture of all Sri Lankans in detention as well as the very serious issues of lack of durable solutions for those in the N & E and violations against Tamils in the war & ongoing through arbitrary detention.