Briefing: Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Problem

by IRIN, New York, December 11, 2012

While moderate lawmakers from both ethnic groups express willingness to reconcile, they are far outnumbered by hardliners, who enjoy strong support outside of cities, especially the rural south, which is the president’s home area. Criticism of the ruling party’s human rights record and lack of progress on ethnic reconciliation has been limited to educated urbanites in Colombo, a scant percentage of the country.

Prospects to improve relations between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated government and ethnic Tamils remain grim more than three years after the end of a civil war fought along ethnic lines, according to activists, law makers and the UN. The country’s balance of power and ethnic polarization look increasingly similar to the situation pre-dating Tamil rebels’ protracted separatist struggle, stoking concern about a return to conflict if the country does not manage its ethnic relations differently this time around.

As examples of divisive ethnic nationalism, experts point to government efforts to repeal a constitutional amendment that allows power sharing; heavy-handed governance; the lack of widespread recognition of the Tamil language; and a breakdown in rule of law. These were all past triggers for violence.

Who are the Tamils?

Tamils are a minority ethnic community living predominantly in the country’s Northern and Eastern provinces. A group of Indian Tamils live in the country’s centre; they were brought over from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu by the former British colonial power in the 18th century to work on plantations. Although this group has largely assimilated, Tamils in the north and northeast identify themselves as being a distinct ethnicity with roots in the country dating back millennia.

Tamil political leaders in these areas have gained popularity by campaigning along ethnic lines and have, until recently, called for a separate state.

There are 2.2 million Tamils in north and northeast Sri Lanka, or 11 percent of the population, while Tamil Indians in central Sri Lanka are 4 percent of the population, according to the country’s most recent census in 2011.

Who are the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam?

Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) was a rebel group that emerged in the mid-1970s; their grievances included alleged state discrimination and human rights abuses against ethnic Tamils. Their aim was the creation of an independent state carved out of the country’s northeast.

The group was famous for its suicide attacks on military and civilian targets, and, since 1997, it has been internationally classified as a terrorist organization. After killing most of LTTE’s senior leadership, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the rebels in May 2009.

Currently, LTTE holds little influence within the country, but its ideology remains popular among hardline members of the Tamil diaspora, which is primarily located in Europe and North America.

Since 2009, the state has – officially and unofficially – clamped down on parties promoting self-determination. The Tamil leadership no longer pushes for a separate state but advocates instead for the devolution of power within the current state.

During the late stages of conflict, unidentified groups killed a number of prominent Tamil law makers, allegedly with state support, according to human rights groups. These killings, among other influences, have forced Tamil lawmakers to tone down nationalist rhetoric and adopt a more conciliatory, politically moderate tone.

State of the union

The Sinhala-dominated government does not recognize Tamil demands for self-determination.

Although previous governments have shown willingness to devolve power from the capital, Colombo, the ruling coalition party – United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – is unlikely to grant devolution to the Tamil minority. Instead, it is trying to repeal the limited devolution granted under the 13th amendment.

The 13th amendment, signed in 1987, introduced a system of nine provincial councils designed to devolve power to areas where Tamils live. Currently, all but the council in Northern Province – the country’s only Tamil-dominant province – is operating.

Off the record, analysts say the government has delayed conducting council elections there due to fears of Tamil nationalists gaining power.The state’s official position is that “provincial-wide governance for the Northern Province poses its own unique challenges as the people in the province have not experienced elected democratic provincial representation for several years”. In the interim, governance structures “are being strengthened gradually”.

Sinhalese hardliners, represented by Jathika Hela Urumaya and National Freedom Front parties, are against any devolution that will increase Tamil power. They are campaigning for a Sinhala-dominated unitary Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, recent attacks on media stations and the killings, disappearances and harassment of prominent journalists (both Tamils and Sinhalese) have been linked to the state. The arbitrary arrest and detention of Tamil activists in the north, coupled with the thousands of Sinhalese military still posted there, have stalled peace-building and a return to normalcy, according to residents in the north.

Views on the ground

While moderate lawmakers from both ethnic groups express willingness to reconcile, they are far outnumbered by hardliners, who enjoy strong support outside of cities, especially the rural south, which is the president’s home area. Criticism of the ruling party’s human rights record and lack of progress on ethnic reconciliation has been limited to educated urbanites in Colombo, a scant percentage of the country.

Some 80 percent of Sri Lankans live in the countryside and are, generally, more concerned about rice than rights. Government subsidies have ensured a fixed price for fertilizer since 2005, and following a recent drought, authorities committed to supplying free seeds to rice farmers planting next year’s crop. The state’s agrarian programming has helped solidify rural support for Colombo, say analysts.

Moderate political thinking “has not reached the village level,” said one activist. “For an uneducated villager, speeches made by the president [Mahinda Rajapaksa] on international conspiracies make a lot of sense. Villagers hold him up as a hero and a king and believe in him like a religion.”

One view among some academics and Sinhalese hardliners is that Tamils in the diaspora, along with international NGOs, the UN and a number of governments, want to weaken Sri Lanka by dividing it.

Post-war recommendations by the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) panel, made public one year ago, were largely unheeded by hardliners who viewed them as too “pro-Tamil.”

Risks of relapse

Analysts believe the immediate risk of backsliding into ethnic conflict is small, due largely to the near total destruction of LTTE human and military infrastructure. But Tamil and Sinhalese moderates say there is a long-term threat of repeat violence if the state does not address the Tamil grievances raised by LLRC.

The LLRC raised issues including the alleged assassination of surrendered LTTE leadership; widespread extrajudicial killings of opposition members and journalists; and continued abductions and disappearances nationwide (mostly in the north).

Yet in a November 2012 presentation to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, the government indicated that progress has been made on LLRC recommendations, including: translation of the English report into Sinhala and Tamil; resettlement of some 300,000 people displaced by fighting; demining; and rehabilitation of former fighters.

The state also approved a “plan of action” in July 2012 to examine LLRC recommendations and established a Court of Inquiry to investigate civilian casualties and alleged abuses. The army recently announced its own investigation into allegations raised by the LLRC.

Human rights activists say investigations must lead to concrete changes in Tamils’ basic rights, including civil and political freedoms.

The government has stated that boosting the economy and infrastructure in the Tamil-dominated north will be key to preventing future conflict.

Prospects for peace

“Little will change on reconciliation without a change in government,” said parliament member Jayalath Jayawardana of the United National Party, the largest opposition party, which initiated peace talks with the LTTE.

But analysts say this is unlikely given the huge support hardliners enjoyed in the 2010 elections; the president won 57 percent of the vote, and his party won 60 percent.

The next elections – final date still to be approved by the president – are expected to take place in 2015 or 2016.


IRIN is the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

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