The Real MIA in Sri Lanka

Basic human rights

by Jack Healey, ‘The Huffington Post,’ Los Angelos, February 19, 2013

(founder, Human Rights Action Center)  Bad Girls video

It always starts with James Franco, doesn’t it? “Pineapple Express,” a Franco and Seth Rogen vehicle that came out in 2008, used “Paper Planes” in a red-band trailer for their film. Thus the artist M.I.A. became known outside of cognoscenti hipsters and became a full-blown pop star. With that stroke of luck, Mathangi Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., became the most visible face of the Tamils as a people that existed. She immediately used her public time to speak on behalf of sundry issues facing the dispossessed, including advocacy for the Tamil people of her birthplace, Sri Lanka. Just over a year later, in May of 2009, the Sri Lankan government would declare a military victory in the civil war that spanned three decades. Is this good news? The Sri Lankan government would have you think so. The Tamil people would say otherwise.

The Tamil and Sinhalese communities coexisted happily for decades until the complicated moves and twists around the time of independence from colonial occupation. With moves reaching back to the mid-1950s, the Sinhalese majority took progressive steps to either ignore or actively disenfranchise the Tamils. The fuse towards armed conflict wasn’t lit until steps taken in the early 1970s began the march towards the civil war breaking out in the mid-1980s. M.I.A. isn’t just the moniker of the world’s most famous Tamil. It is also the acronym that might describe human rights for Tamils in today’s Sri Lanka. Disturbingly, the government of Sri Lanka has resisted calls for accountability in human rights in the war and aftermath. Why?
Impressively, the response from the Tamil people, including the global diaspora, has been to push for a system of democratic organizing and advocacy that involves trying to advocate for mechanisms of international accountability. The aim is still to call for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka, but the commitment to nonviolent political means to achieve such aims are important. Impressively, after the military defeat of the LTTE, there were a series of referendums held throughout the diaspora of Tamils around the world. 99% of those who participated continued to prefer independence. Subsequently, a multinational advisory committee (including a number of non-Tamil advocates, consultants, academics, and legal experts) came together to form the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, which convened for the first time in Philadelphia in 2010 and elected Mr. Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran to lead.
Approximately 100,000 people were killed by the Sri Lankan military in the closing campaign of the civil war by some counts. The tally of the civil war at large is still unknown and contentious. There are over 90,000 Tamil war widows. The government of Sri Lanka has resisted calls for international investigations or human rights monitoring. The world’s attention has drifted elsewhere in South Asia with the ongoing concerns in the so-called AfPak theater and the global focus on fighting “wars on terror” rather than the gritty work of building awareness and respect for human rights. One can only presume that the formidably fierce Tigers of the LTTE still has enough operational capacity to remain a thorn in the side of the government for decades to come or even to reignite the conflict itself. The surprising thing? That’s not what’s happening.

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has highlighted a number ofconcerns with the Sri Lankan failure to respect basic human rights for the Tamil minority. This is setting the stage for a replay of history in building new grudges and thus the groundwork is laid for another round of marginalization and religious/ethnic conflict. Why would the Sri Lankan government want to do this instead of working on a political solution and dialogue?
The most important shift in Sri Lanka has been the fact that the Tamils have shifted from an armed conflict for rights to a nonviolent political movement for democracy. Who could possibly oppose this change? Who could not embrace it? The current government of Sri Lanka has been accused of making the wrong steps and moving into a familiar pattern of family-connections instead of prioritizing the rights of all its peoples.
With almost 60% of the global population in Asia, and with an enormous level of development happening there, it is taken for granted that the continent’s resolutions of issues regarding energy, food, water, and environment will have decisive weight for the rest of the planet. The same recognition should be extended to basic human rights. There are other nations that have been undertaking struggles towards greater appreciation for human rights and better transparency and accountability in governments. Indonesia has come along by leaps and bounds. Thailand is in process right now. Even Burma/Myanmar has begun the road to better practices (in spite of the gravely concerning conflicts in Kachin and Rakhine, with all the eerie similarities to the conflict in Sri Lanka).

We have an obligation to human rights for all humans everywhere. The campaign undertaken by the current Sri Lankan government against Tamil self-determination and the imperatives of basic human rights for all citizens are disturbing. The response of the Tamils in the postwar period to continue their campaign without violence and with maximum organization, democracy, and transparency? Inspirational.

The LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, once mounted one of the most fearsome campaigns of armed resistance and conflict ever seen in South Asia (or Asia period). The decisively military end of the conflict has changed little in terms of the bases for Tamil concerns for their rights, and may have considerably strengthened the people’s commitment to achieve them. Having said that, they are unquestionably committed to nonviolent politics. One would think that a sensible Sri Lankan government would try to engage them and to work towards real political dialogue instead of more stonewalling. The transformation from “Tigers” as a fighting force into Tamils as a political force(Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam – TGTE) is a testament to political growth that might serve as a model for any number of conflicts plaguing Asia and the world. It would be nice if the government in Colombo would step up to the cricket bat and play fairly on the field of human rights.

Watch this space for more occasional articles on Tamils, the transformation of conflict, and the pursuit of real human rights in Sri Lanka.

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