Don’t Whitewash the Sri Lankan State’s Many Crimes

Modern Diplomacyby Taylor Dibbert, Modern Diplomacy, Europe, June 12, 2020

A recent article in these pages examines the Sri Lankan government’s battle against the Tamil Tigers, the activities of the Tamil diaspora and more. Unfortunately, the article whitewashes the Sri Lankan military’s horrendous wartime abuses. One cannot fully understand or appreciate modern-day Sri Lanka and the future direction of the country’s politics without properly contextualizing what transpired during the end of the war, acknowledging that there were massive Tamil civilian casualties and recognizing that that the root causes of the longstanding ethnic conflict remain unaddressed.

In their piece, the authors claim that “Sri Lanka’s military victory was the result of courageous leadership and a solid grand-strategy.”

The reality is far more complicated. Sri Lanka’s military victory was made possible by massive civilian casualties and appalling human rights violations, including rape, enforced disappearances, the deliberate shelling of hospitals and extrajudicial killings.

Some of these well-documented violations could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Others claim that this was an example of genocide. Regardless, there’s nothing courageous about slaughtering civilians and committing acts of sexual violence.

In their article, the authors write that “[s]ome notable issues that are continuously represented in these [Tamil diaspora] website contents are government’s continued militarization of North, accusations of war crimes, government denial of war crimes and issues that denigrate the image of Sri Lanka internationally.”

There is significant evidence of the Sri Lankan military’s widespread human rights violations, both during and after the war. Relatedly, the continued and unnecessary militarization of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province (and elsewhere) is also well-documented.

The government’s divisive and discriminatory policies are cause for significant concern. These policies of oppression are laying the groundwork for more ethnic violence.

In their article, the authors assert that “[i]t was both state and LTTE violence that forced Tamils to seek political asylum abroad.” This statement is, at best, extremely misleading.

It’s true that there have been examples of Tamils seeking political asylum due to LTTE violence. And, yes, the separatist group committed their fair share of wartime abuses. However, the vast majority of Tamils who have sought asylum have done so due to systematic violence and repression that’s been designed and orchestrated by the Sinhala-dominated state. This includes anti-Tamil pogroms in 1958, 1977 and 1983. The notion that somehow “state and LTTE violence” are equally responsible for Tamils seeking asylum is preposterous.

More generally, Tamils have been compelled to deal with pervasive discrimination regarding land, language, employment, education and more.Tamils have been treated as inferior citizens since Sri Lanka became an independent country in 1948.

In the last paragraph of their article, the authors write that “[i]n retrospect, the battle with virtual Ealam is the biggest and the most difficult war to win.” This is simply not true. The principal (and most difficult) battle that must be won now is for Sri Lanka’s political elite (and others) to finally demonstrate political courage and stare down Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

This isn’t about countering whatever certain members of the Tamil diaspora may or may not be doing in cyberspace. It’s about building a more inclusive and just Sri Lanka that finally acknowledges the country’s considerable ethnic and religious diversity. It’s about rolling back the pervasive militarization in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and giving Tamils and Muslims greater autonomy within a peaceful and united Sri Lanka. And, at some point, there will be the need to address the elephant in the room – accountability. Accountability for horrific end-of-war violations is an essential element of any lasting path to national reconciliation.

Nevertheless, Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in November 2019. He’s already taking the country in a dangerous and unsurprisingly authoritarian direction. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa became Prime Minister shortly after Gotabaya became president. As Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and President, these are the men who oversaw the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. We should expect them to continue to promulgate a bold anti-minority agenda.

To conclude, let’s not whitewash the Sri Lankan state’s role in driving and perpetuating the ethnic conflict. Doing so is dangerous. After all, there’s another key part of reconciliation and lasting peace that cannot be discounted: truth.

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