Ethnic rights in Sri Lanka

India has to tread carefully putting subtle pressure on Sri Lanka to address the concerns of the Tamils

Published: 23rd November 2012 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd November 2012 11:18 PM   |  A+A-

As a post-conflict society Sri Lanka has to engage in peace building and state reconstruction after years of war with the Tamil minority, who are now represented by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). For years the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) engaged in a civil war for Tamil rights creating parallel structures to those of the state and supporting the cause of secession. In doing this, the LTTE also held its own people hostage, assassinating even those within the community who wanted to opt for peaceful means of struggle through non-violent and political ways. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that has emerged as one of the main parties representing the Tamil people after the 30 year war ended, is an organisation that suffered on account of both the obduracy of the Sri Lankan state as well as the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government should recognise this changed reality.

However, what has happened since the end of the war? The Sri Lankan government appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that met thousands of victims and came out with a report. The TNA rejected this report’s findings and recommendations because this report did not hold the government accountable and did not give justice or even a full account of the war crimes that the international community, Press and United Nations’ agencies showed had occurred. At the same time, while the LLRC has strong shortcomings, it makes some recommendations that can initiate a process with which the Tamil leaders can start work, and then move ahead negotiating their demands systematically.

The Sri Lankan government held elections after the war, including in the north and east areas that were earlier not under Colombo’s control, to show that a period of normalcy had been initiated. In this election the TNA won significantly. Their main demand is the creation of a type of federal Sri Lanka where the Tamils can have autonomy. They want a merger of the north and east areas where Tamils live. They talk of the Thirteenth Amendment, which was backed by India years back that will make a kind of federal arrangement possible. The Sri Lankan government, however, does not appear to consider any of their demands seriously.

The Tamils also want that the hundred thousand Tamils displaced by the war should be returned to their homes and rehabilitated with their livelihood and dignity. This process has been painfully slow and has only added to the grief of the minority community. Women have been very seriously affected by the conflict. Gendered crimes were rampant. They were symbols of Tamil honour and thus abused. Many participated in the war as suicide bombers and guerilla outfits and became victims and martyrs. They bore the burden of looking after their families and community. They need special attention.

Things are far from normal in Sri Lanka. This stems first from the triumphalism, majoritarianism, militarisation and stereotyping in the mindset of the Sri Lankan regime in power as well as in all structures and institutions. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s regime is not willing to address the root cause of the Tamil minority problem. They frequently refer to the TNA as holding on to the LTTE positions. This is untrue. The Tamils have given up the demand for a separate state and will settle for a federal arrangement.

At the same time, the TNA and other Tamils must also recognise the Tamil Muslims, who were forced to migrate out of Tamil areas by the LTTE during their hold on the area. They must not accede to the pressure of the Tamil diaspora and their long distance and surrogate extra nationalism. If the TNA wants a plural, secular and federal Sri Lanka they also must in turn recognise minority rights and make adequate social, political and economic space for their own minorities and dissenters.

Interestingly, President Rajapaksa has appealed to the influential forces in India that can sway Tamil opinion, including the Indian media. He knows India can play a major role. At the same time, in Tamil Nadu, emotions remain high and sensitive on the Tamil ethnic cause in Sri Lanka. All political parties and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa have been repeatedly asking the Indian government to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government. Recently Jayalalithaa wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh objecting to India training Sri Lankan Army personnel. She continuously takes up this cause as it is a major political issue.

India in its turn is walking on a razor’s edge. On the one hand they need to make sure the Tamil sentiment is not hurt. They would like to see a Sri Lanka that can only be stable if it accepts a multi-ethnic, federal structure but also respects minority and human rights. On the other hand India cannot intervene in local politics beyond a point because it can be considered as hegemonic and the Sri Lankan regime will turn to China and could even give them a military base. At the same time China can never replace India in Sri Lankan geopolitics.

So in these circumstances India has to tread carefully where its priority should be to keep putting sustained yet subtle pressure that Sri Lanka deliver on the issue of ethnic rights. It also has to indicate to the Sri Lankan Tamil parties, like the TNA, that they too must ensure the rights of all communities. The only way for a just solution to Sri Lanka would be a step-by-step federal, right-based restructuring within a time frame acceptable by all parties. This would include de-militarisation and ensuring women’s rights, rehabilitation and participation. Liberals and ethnic minorities of Sri Lanka believe India has a positive role in this. India should try and fulfil this.

Anuradha Mitra Chenoy is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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