Sinhalization of the North-East

by People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, March 2022


See the source imageExecutive Summary
This report outlines the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL)’s multi-pronged Sinhalization efforts in the
North-East through the use of state-aided Sinhala settlements and irrigation schemes, economic
marginalization and land appropriation by Sri Lankan state bodies, “Buddhisization,” and repression of
memorialization of important Tamil events. When considered against the broader context of decades of
state-driven demographic shifts, this report’s findings support the conclusion that the GoSL is
reengineering the demographics in the North-East of Sri Lanka with clear political implications. The
systematic and strategic alteration of the North-East’s demographics is designed to destroy the Tamil
concept of a homeland in the North-East and permanently diminish Tamil democratic representation from
the region.

Part I outlines the need for this report, and ominous warning signs that grave human rights violations
remain imminent given Sri Lanka’s current culture of impunity. It further defines Sinhalization as a
supremacist, settler-colonial enterprise that seeks to supplant the distinct Tamil character of the
North-East with that of a unitary Sinhala-Buddhist state. Finally, itsummarizesthe key historical context,
from the roots of Sinhalization after the British colonial era, through the armed conflict and into the
post-conflict years.

Part II analyzes the legal framework underpinning the GoSL’s irrigation-settlement schemes in the
North-East, which are currently chiefly carried out under the umbrella of the Mahaweli Development
Project at the direction of the Mahaweli Authority. The Mahaweli Authority in turn exercises a sweepingly
broad legal mandate to acquire and develop both privately-owned and public lands through irrigation
schemes. The Government then subsidizes the settlement of Sinhalese people into these historically Tamil
lands in order to farm the newly irrigated land, all while blocking Tamil efforts to have their land
ownership claims recognized. As a result, thousands of Tamils remain displaced, unable to re-enter their
lands or carry out their traditional livelihoods.

Part III highlights the role that the ongoing military occupation playsin the dispossession, displacement,
and economic marginalization of Tamils in the North-East. Through the continuing proliferation of
military-run High Security Zones (HSZs), the state has effectively blocked Tamils from rebuilding their
homes and livelihoods after the armed conflict. Meanwhile, the military-dominated tourism sector
promotes Buddhist-nationalist narratives while displacing and marginalizing the economic activitiesthat
Tamils traditionally carried out on their lands. Finally, the chapter briefly examines the militarization of
“community projects” and the appointment of various military-run Presidential Task Forces with sweeping
powers. Together, these activities aim to normalize a pervasive military presence and surveillance of
civilian life in the North-East.

Part IV turnsto the direct construction and reinforcement of the State’s ethnocentric, Buddhist-nationalist
narrative in its Buddhisization of Tamil lands and religioussites. In 2020, the GoSL appointed and invested
in a new Task Force for Archaeological Heritage in the Eastern Province with wide-ranging powers and no
accountability or Tamil representation. The Task Force, which has been staffed exclusively with Sinhala
military brass and Buddhist religious leaders, perhaps unsurprisingly focuses on the “discovery,” building,
and preservation of Buddhist monuments and religious sitesin the historically Muslim and Hindu Eastern
Province. As a result, Tamils have lost access to a number of their religious and cultural sites. At the same
time, such sites draw Buddhist pilgrims and create new spaces for Buddhist cultural activities and

Each of the strategies examined act as a means to not only occupy and dominate the physicalspace of the
Tamil homeland, but also displace the historical and cultural touchstones of Tamil community life in the
North-East. This serves the Sri Lankan nation-building vision of a unitary Sinhala- Buddhiststate. In each
case, the GoSL has created one or more governing bodies—from the Mahaweli Authority to a range of
executive Task Forces—that are designed to centralize power and remove local governance structures in
Tamil-dominated regions. In addition, these processes occur at the expense of the rule of law,since the Sri
Lankan courts have repeatedly shown themselvesto be unable or unwilling to enforce any meaningful legal
checks against government Sinhalization activities. The collective effect is an erosion of human rights and
democratic accountability throughout the country.

Part V examines the ways in which the GoSL attempts to override and repress Tamil narratives and
memories of the armed conflict. The GoSL has sought to Sinhalize the historical identity of the North-East
by promoting Sinhalese perspectives on memory and history, while simultaneously suppressing the
perspectives of Tamil-speaking communities. Tamils have resisted through acts of memorialization that
highlight the existence of the Tamil nation and honor the power and potential of the Tamil right to their
land, their culture, and theirself-determination.

In its final chapter, Part VI, the report highlights Tamil resistance in the face of the State’s efforts to
dismantle the communities and demographics of Tamil-speaking regions in the North-East, and offers
policy recommendations that protect and advance Tamils’ human rights. In particular, the broad
acknowledgement of the traditional Tamil homeland, addressing the root causes of the armed conflict,
empowering local governance over lands and resources in the North-East, and meaningful accountability
and justice are vital for countering the oppressive effects of Sinhalization.

Reversing these trends and ensuring that Tamils can realize their rights will require both international and
GoSL actorsto engage in constructive collaborationsto listen to and respect Tamil demandsfor justice.


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