Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sri Lanka's Ethnic Conundrum

by Martin Regg Cohn, The Toronto Star, June 30, 2009

The problem is this: The Sinhalese are a majority group who behave with a minority mentality; the Tamils are a minority who act as if they were the majority.

The resulting polarization has played itself out on the battlefield for 26 years at the cost of nearly 100,000 lives. For Sri Lanka to heal itself, both sides must pull back from maximalist approaches.

By demanding an independent homeland, Tamils have only fed the paranoia of Sinhalese who fear that devolution is death. By treating federalism as a dirty word, Sinhalese have emasculated Tamils who seek only local rule.

It won the war, but has Sri Lanka lost its mind?

After declaring total victory over the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka remains as combative as ever. Weeks later, it still sees enemies everywhere – and silences them.

The government is overcome by post-traumatic triumphalism syndrome: Its president behaves like a Buddha, gliding across the land of Lanka erecting stupas (shrines) commemorating his victory. Music videos sing the praises of Mahindra Rajapaksa. Billboards hail his inspired rule as a warrior king.

Anyone who is off key had best hold his tongue – or risk having it cut off, as Bob Rae discovered this month. The Liberal MP was denied entry to Colombo airport when the intelligence services (falsely) labelled him a Tiger lackey and security risk. Rae arrived with a visa in his passport, but after refusing to sign an "Orwellian" statement recanting past comments, he was put on the next flight to London.

So if Sri Lanka can offend a future Canadian foreign minister this way, how does it treat its own Tamils? And ours?

It turns out that Rae wasn't the only Canadian to find himself out of place in Sri Lanka. The Canadian Tamil Congress says it is receiving constant complaints from dual nationals facing harassment at Colombo's airport, including demands for bribes. But the trouble goes beyond airport formalities.

At least four dual nationals are being held in the sprawling network of detention camps set up by the government in the wake of its battlefield victory, according to the CTC. These Canadian citizens on family visits were ensnared by the guilt-by-association policy that has placed nearly 300,000 ethnic Tamils behind barbed wire.

Their Toronto lawyer, Gary Anandasangaree, tells me Ottawa is teaming up with Australia and Britain to free dual-nationals in the camps. A Canadian government spokesperson said yesterday that our diplomats are still trying to confirm the reports, but lack of access to the camps has frustrated their efforts. It's an issue that has the potential to further complicate bilateral ties after a mob attacked Canada's High Commission in Colombo last month.

Apart from the harm to Canadian citizens and interests, Sri Lanka's actions shine a spotlight on how it is harming its own people, its own stability and future prosperity.

After so bloody a war against so brutal a foe, it's hardly surprising the military wants to vet the camps for potential Tiger infiltrators. But it is unconscionable to keep so many displaced Tamil civilians locked up for so long.

An absurd two-year timeline for resettling the civilians has now been scaled back to about 12 months. And after barring outside aid groups, Sri Lanka has improved access for humanitarian relief, easing problems with malnutrition and sanitation.

But what the government still can't countenance is outside scrutiny or criticism, no matter how constructive. The tactic was honed by the military during the final showdown with the Tigers, when outside relief groups and independent journalists were barred from the battlefield. It doesn't augur well for the soul-searching dialogue that Sri Lanka now needs.

The nation has long been at war with itself: The Sinhalese make up three-quarters of the population; the Tamils are about 18 per cent. Under British colonial rule, the Tamils received preferential treatment; after independence, the Sinhalese settled scores by restricting language rights and imposing school quotas.

The problem is this: The Sinhalese are a majority group who behave with a minority mentality; the Tamils are a minority who act as if they were the majority.

The resulting polarization has played itself out on the battlefield for 26 years at the cost of nearly 100,000 lives. For Sri Lanka to heal itself, both sides must pull back from maximalist approaches.

By demanding an independent homeland, Tamils have only fed the paranoia of Sinhalese who fear that devolution is death. By treating federalism as a dirty word, Sinhalese have emasculated Tamils who seek only local rule.

Is there a way out? Only if both sides can keep their heads after losing so many lives.

The outside world can also help by prodding Sri Lanka to live up to its human rights obligations – and leveraging its financial obligations. Colombo's treasury is bare after the military campaign, and it needs a loan from the International Monetary Fund to stay afloat. But money alone won't work magic.

Now that the government has won the fight against Tiger terrorism, it needs a winning strategy to combat ethnic intolerance. The battlefield begets military solutions, but ethnic cleavages require conflict resolution. And that means devolution.

Martin Regg Cohn, the Star's deputy editorial page editor, writes Tuesday.