The Sri Lankan war, that had lasted for over thirty years, ended in 2009 on a thin peninsula of beach on the north-eastern tip of the Island. It was fought between the government and a separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE.
At closer inspection, this was an ethnic civil war between the Sinhala ethnic majority, who effectively ran the country, and the Tamil ethnic minority who had been marginalised as second class citizens since Sri Lanka won Independence from the British in 1948. Although the government claimed to fight on the grounds of combating terrorism, the reality was that the Sinhala elite refused to recognise the Tamil group, mainly from the north and east of the country, and refused to see their own political and economic monopoly over the country weaken.
The Tamil Tigers fought in response to this and for the right to vote for self-determination on behalf of the Tamil people.
The war had victims on both sides and both committed atrocities, but it is fair to say that the Tamil civilians suffered the most. Thousands have been killed and an estimated one million have been displaced since the war began in the 1980s.
But the end of the war was promulgated by the Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa as a new beginning, ”After 30 years we now see the dawn that will take us to a golden age of the future” (Human Rights Watch).
Note the use of ‘us’.
Sri Lanka has made some dynamic developmental advances since the end of the war. China has become a huge investor and has been granted ‘an exclusive economic zone’ and investment priority. The Asian powerhouse has flexed its financial muscle by offering Sri Lanka a huge $900million loan to build a power plant on the south of the Island (Reuters).
The second helping hand has come in the form of arms. China has offered grants to ‘build and modernise the Sri Lankan military establishment’ (Hindu Times). China views this investment to gain ‘closer co-operation’, but the reality for the Tamils has been disastrous.
Much of this money has been fed into the North of country where the civil war was fought. There remains today a vast military presence in the north and east that survey and control the movement of the Tamil people who inhabit the area and any form of assembly requires military permission. The fact is, basic Tamil political and civil freedoms are being watched and curtailed.
The Himal Magazine states that ‘the total defeat of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) has allowed the Sri Lankan government to ignore the political rights’ of the Tamils (Himal). The war, despite the atrocities, gave the Tamils something to fight for. It was also a source of hope for the future – that the government find a political agreement and give them an equal stake in society.
Now, as a Minority Rights Group field report has stated, there ‘have been attacks on opposition politicians and the media, a clampdown on civil society organisation, and a growing intolerance of any form of opposition dissent.’ (Minority Rights Group)
It is worrying, therefore, that the World Bank has re-classified Sri Lanka as a ‘middle income country at peace’. Peace, there may be, but the country is still divided on ethnic lines which also reflects economic inequality and unequal civil freedoms between the two groups. The worry is compounded by a UN news report that ‘donor interest in the north is waning’. ‘There really is no funding available – it’s drying up and we are all suffering’, said Jose Ravano, the Save the Children Sri Lanka director (IRIN News).
International spotlight remains on the government over possible war crimes, many of which were revealed by the Channel 4 documentary ‘The Killing Fields’, however if development aid continues to decrease the Tamil people face a whole new host of problems.
It is necessary now that the NGO development sector and International Governments co-ordinate to formulate a strategy that maintains the calls for Sri Lankan governmental accountability during
the war, still pressurises the government to give the Tamils political recognition and ensures that the development sector does not forget the North of the Island despite widespread development and prosperity in the South.
Peace can make violence invisible, but it does not mean that it does not exist. The Tamils have been victims of violence, both visible and invisible for half a century, and it continues today.
Sports fans in particular should bear this in mind, given that the ICC Twenty20 Cricket World Cup will take place in Sri Lanka in a month’s time. I’m sure this will be a great sporting success, but it should also be a time to reflect on Sri Lanka’s not so glorious past and speak up on the worrying present day.