Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

One Country, Two Nations

by Banyan, The Economist, November 25, 2010

National reconciliation still seems more a rhetorical ideal than a government policy...

Tamil politicians believe the government intends to curb Tamil nationalism through intense security and population transfer.

The Rajapaksa clan is justifiably triumphant. But Sri Lanka remains dangerously divided

One Country, Two Nations Sri Lanka 2010

THEY look more like desperate refugees than the pampered vanguard of an organised mass colonisation. But that is how most local Tamils view the 600-odd ethnic Sinhalese who pitched up at the derelict railway station in the northern Sri Lankan town of Jaffna last month. As the new arrivals saw it, they were moving back home after a stay in the south. Now resettled in the crudest of tarpaulin shelters at Navatkuli, just outside town, crowded onto scrubby land shaded by a few coconut palms, they complain of joblessness and worry about the approaching rainy season. But they insist they are here to stay.

The locals’ suspicions suggest the government’s triumph last year over Velupillai Prabhakaran and his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, ending their 26-year fight for a Tamil “homeland”, is in one sense incomplete. Most Tamils, many of whom loathed and feared the brutal Tigers, feel it as a defeat. National reconciliation still seems more a rhetorical ideal than a government policy.

In the south, among the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority, Mahinda Rajapaksa, inaugurated for his second presidential term on November 19th, is monarch of all he surveys (and he does little to discourage intimations of royalty). Wildly popular for ending the war, he has sanctioned an epic personality cult. With three brothers, a son and a nephew in leading political roles, his family controls almost all levers of power. His only rival in popular esteem—Sarath Fonseka, his former army chief and then a challenger for the presidency in January—is in jail. Journalists admit to censoring themselves out of fear. A state of emergency is still in force, though Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother who runs the defence ministry, says it will be lifted in two or three months. The government has amended the constitution to get rid of term-limits and other tiresome checks on presidential power.

In Tamil-dominated Jaffna, however, presidential portraits, plastered all over the south for the inauguration, are scarce. Local politicians see their people as marginalised. They discount the president’s vague promises of a serious devolution of power. They note how he qualified that pledge in a recent interview: the Tamil parties must “realise that what we refused to give Prabhakaran, we won’t give to others.”

Tamil politicians believe the government intends to curb Tamil nationalism through intense security and population transfer. Hence their reaction to the arrival of 183 families from the south. These Sinhalese say they fled ethnic violence in Jaffna at the start of the war in 1983, and were dispersed in various southern districts. They were never fully accepted there, they say, being seen as quasi-Tamils. But they kept in touch with each other all these years. At least half had been born since 1983, and had never set foot in the north. But when they heard that Jaffna was now peaceful, they arranged a fleet of buses and came back together.

It is hard to believe that they did so entirely spontaneously. But to extrapolate from there to a full-scale colonisation plan, as so many Tamils do, reveals an enormous distrust of the government. So does speculation that the army intends to establish permanent cantonments throughout the north, moving military families to the area to join the soldiers. Despite the outbreak of peace, this week’s government budget awarded the biggest outlay to defence. Gotabaya Rajapaksa argues that, having tripled the size of the armed forces to win the war, he cannot “send those people home”, where they would have nothing to do.

The mutual distrust is an inevitable legacy of the civil war and the slaughter in which it ended last year. It is made worse by official secrecy. The government rejected an international inquiry into alleged war crimes by both sides. The “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” it appointed instead has heard some valuable testimony. But, boycotted by leading international and domestic NGOs, it lacks credibility. The camps where 330,000 displaced people were interned after the war were closed to most outside scrutiny. This week the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that it had been told to close its offices in Jaffna and Vavuniya, near the biggest camps. It is still rare for foreign journalists to be allowed to visit the north.

Even government critics, however, concede that peace is better than war. And some of the worst of the scare stories about the government’s intentions have proved unfounded. It was accused of planning to intern Tamils in the camps indefinitely. But over 300,000 have already left. Many have yet to rebuild their lives. Ashok, a 38-year-old Hindu priest (most Tamils are Hindus and resent the Buddhist pagodas sprouting in the north for the army’s use), is used to being shunted around. He was first displaced in 1990, from Palali, near Jaffna, one of the much-resented “high-security zones”, from which civilians were evacuated.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Ashok then lived in Tiger-controlled Jaffna until 1995, when he retreated with them to a stronghold elsewhere in the north. In 2009 he had to abandon another home in the flight to the Tigers’ final redoubt. He was one of the tens of thousands to escape from there in the war’s last days, and then spent seven months in a camp. Being a priest spared him from suspicions of being a full-fledged Tiger. Back in Jaffna, he hopes to go back to Palali one day.

Such life stories help explain why reconciliation is difficult. The failure even to attempt it, however, is “inviting another terrorist movement”, in the words of a politician representing Sri Lanka’s Muslims, another aggrieved minority. So thorough was the army’s victory that the risks of that seem tiny for now. And both India, in Kashmir, and China, in Tibet, have shown in their different ways that it is possible to keep a resentful local population in check for decades. But Sri Lanka’s optimists hoped the end of the war might herald a future so much brighter than that.


Printer-friendly version