Editor’s note: Karunyan Arulanantham is the executive director of the Tamil American Peace Initiative, an organization of Tamil Americans. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Amid the jungle and sandy beaches of northeast Sri Lanka’s Vanni region lie tragic truths the government has desperately sought to suppress in the four years since its civil war with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) came to a sudden and gory halt. On the Mullivaikal peninsula, between the Nanthikadal Lagoon and the sea just north of the town of Mullaithivu, the government declared a safe zone, where hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were trapped as they sought refuge from the bloodshed.
What happened next is almost unimaginable. Seeking to crush the LTTE once and for all, the government proceeded to shell the No Fire Zone and surrounding areas after assuring the world that they would not use heavy weapons. The government declared victory over the LTTE in late May 2009, but in doing so, tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians were also killed by government forces.
According to the U.N. Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka, as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed during the war’s final stages, while “only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure.” Some analysts paint an even starker picture. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar, Joseph Rayappu, has testified that over 140,000 civilians remain unaccounted for since the fall of 2008.
In March, the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution calling for the Sri Lankan government to “conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” that occurred during the war’s final stages. But how honest are we being with ourselves when we ask a government that stands chief among the accused to credibly and independently investigate its own wrongdoing?
In fact, the government continues to promote the very same climate of oppression and indifference that largely fueled Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict and led to civil war.
The UNHRC is well aware of this, citing in its report the continuation of “enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.”
These alleged transgressions were echoed in last year’s U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which also noted “a lack of accountability for thousands who disappeared in previous years; and widespread impunity for a broad range of human rights abuses, particularly involving police torture, and attacks on media institutions and the judiciary.”
Meanwhile, the Tamils in particular continue to be marginalized, demonized and endangered. They are denied political representation and economic opportunity while enduring the seizure and militarization of their homes and lands. The latest reported land grab by the army is the alleged seizure of 6,381 acres of land belonging to Tamils in just one small northern area of Valikamam, although others have also been claimed.
After the war, the government scrapped the singing of the national anthem in Tamil at official functions, and is quickly and decisively dismantling the cultural identity of the Tamils.
Aware of all this, what is the international community waiting for? A U.N. mechanism that would allow the international community to act decisively and initiate independent investigations and conduct a U.N. supervised referendum on options for peaceful coexistence is long overdue. This is by far the best way to achieve real reconciliation.
The Tamil people deserve to have their rights protected. Yet they now face a systematic attempt by a conquering, vindictive government to erase them from the country’s future and the nation’s collective memory. By definition, you can’t have reconciliation or stability when certain groups are perennially subjugated.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has mounted an expensive public relations strategy that denies and distracts from the real issues the country faces. It promises to take meaningful steps forward, but only makes halfhearted attempts in the hopes that more years will pass, and the international community will forget. But forgetting the past will only ensure it is repeated.
Because the government won’t pursue truth and reconciliation, the international community must. And the United States should take the lead on such an effort. As President Obama said on May 13, 2009 as the war neared its end, “Going forward, Sri Lanka must seek a peace that is secure and lasting, and grounded in respect for all of its citizens.”
Judging by recent history, one thing seems clear: Sri Lanka won’t solve its problems on its own.