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M.I.A.'s Latest Hit: Save Sri Lanka

Can South Africa’s post-apartheid example be the answer to the rampant ethnic violence in Sri Lanka?


On The Tavis Smiley Show recently, British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A turned the much-needed spotlight onto the troubles in her native country.

She described the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka as “genocide.” And said her own minority Tamil community was getting little public sympathy for their plight because the Bush administration had labeled them as “terrorists.”

Though her views are controversial in some circles, I give her a lot of credit for using her celebrity pulpit to draw attention to a conflict that has cost too many lives, including those of two leading Sri Lankan journalists. (Just this weekend, more than 1,000 civilians were killed in a “safe zone,” according to reports.)

Five years ago, a devastating tsunami brought some attention to prolonged ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, but in general, the media, as is often the case with conflicts in the Third World, have little interest in complicated wars involving dark people killing other dark people. As a result, most Americans still have little awareness of the nearly-three-decades-long bloody war in Sri Lanka.

Since 1983, the country’s majority Sinhala community has been fiercely battling Tamil separatists seeking to establish their own homeland in the north and east of the country. Known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil insurgency has indeed used abhorrent tactics including suicide bombing. The Sinhala-controlled government has responded by bombing them into oblivion.

After the tsunami’s devastation—which occurred during a ceasefire in the conflict—many hoped that the two communities would recognize the importance of coming together to rebuild their beautiful shared-island home. Instead, for the past two years, the fighting has escalated.

Recently, President Mahinda Rajapaksa attempted to end the war through a final military assault on the Tamil areas of the country. This move was widely cheered by the Sinhala majority and overwhelmingly decried by human rights groups. And for the Tamil minority, government policy to forcibly hold huge numbers of the community in internment camps has further deepened their marginalization.

Though an end to the conflict does not seem imminent, it is not too early to begin imagining plans for a sustainable peace. The reality is that the island is reaching a crossroads very similar to one that South Africa experienced in the early 1990s—an opportunity to break from its bloody past. And indeed, there is much for Sri Lanka to learn from South Africa’s example.