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.
Will the government of Sri Lanka reach out to the Tamil minority, offering a viable settlement that acknowledges the community’s legitimate grievances? Or will it view military success as a pretext for a narrow victor’s justice?
Unfortunately, the actions of the Rajapaksa government offer little reason for hope. Political assassination has become the dominant mode for dealing with opposition voices, both Sinhala and Tamil. The killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga, a Sinhalese editor of the independent English weekly, Sunday Leader, by pro-government forces, was just the latest example. Before he was shot, he wrote his own obituary foretelling his death and examining the meaning of the press in a militarized society. With his brave and moving prose, Wickramatunga condemned the government led by his longtime friend, calling for a “transparent, liberal democracy” and decrying the militarization of his beloved island home after three decades of war.
Wickramatunga’s killing bookended a period of democratic retrenchment that began with the 2005 assassination of the equally prominent and beloved Tamil journalist, Dharmeratnam Sivaram, known to many as Taraki. Taraki’s kidnapping and eventual death at the hands of four unknown assailants presumed to be affiliated with the government heralded the beginning of the targeted killings that have consciously sought to shut down the moderate middle on both sides of the ethnic divide.
The tragic part of Sri Lanka’s story is that the changes required are fairly simple. Since independence, Tamils and other non-Sinhala communities have been treated as second-class citizens, denied access to the country’s social, political and economic life. Contrary to the reality of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious existence, the government, prodded by radical Sinhala nationalists, has consistently sought to define the island nation as ethnically Sinhala and religiously Buddhist.
The government’s failure to protect minority rights birthed the Tamil resistance. Indeed, the Tamil minority struggled non-violently for two decades before turning to more violent options. Until Sri Lanka recognizes that a sustained peace can only come from a final political settlement that provides the Tamil and other minority communities the opportunity to participate fully, ethnic violence is likely to reemerge in a new and more brutal form. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government is more concerned with celebrating its victory than taking the difficult steps necessary for ensuring reconciliation.
So what is the path forward? Again, the South African model comes to mind. An independent Truth and Reconciliation commission comprised of moderate Sri Lankan leaders from across the ethnic spectrum should be established to examine the consequences of three decades of war. And a new inclusive constitution must be drafted and paired with wide-ranging institutional reforms to ensure equal protection and opportunity for all of Sri Lanka’s minorities. These reforms can help shift the Sri Lankan nation away from its exclusionary nature to a more inclusive conception, providing the basis for a lasting peace.
Zachariah Mampilly is an assistant professor in the Departments of Political Science, International Studies and Africana Studies at Vassar College.