The five-day march for justice held across Sri Lanka’s north and east last week drew attention for more than one reason.
After months of restricted movement due to the pandemic, it was the first instance of several thousand people taking to the streets to assert their rights.
The ‘Pothuvil to Polikandy’ rally or ‘P2P’, began in the eastern Ampara district and ended in Jaffna in the Northern Province, covering several towns en route. Prominent Tamil and Muslim politicians, activists, students, and residents took part in the march.
Departing from past struggles in the north and east that focussed on grievances specific to war-affected Tamils, the rally included key concerns of the Muslim community and Malaiyaha [Hill Country] Tamils working in the tea estates, in the list of ten demands put together by civil society groups.
It highlighted land grab in Tamil areas, “government-sponsored” Sinhalese settlements, enforced disappearances, persisting militarisation, intimidation of activists and journalists, the continuing use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the detention of political prisoners without trial. The activists also demanded that the government reverse its enforced cremations policy affecting Muslims, and ensure a fair wage to plantation labourers.
Sri Lanka’s Army Commander Shavendra Silva has termed the rally “a show” ahead of the Human Rights Council session in Geneva later this month, where Sri Lanka’s rights record will be reviewed. Action would be taken on those who violated “Covid restrictions”, he said.
Organisers and participants see the rally differently.
“It is 12 years since the war ended and the Tamil people’s problems remain unaddressed. Some in government want the provincial council system also abolished. We had to assert our rights, and we decided to do that in a democratic manner,” said Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, a legislator from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), from the eastern Batticaloa district.
The 30-year-old parliamentarian, who walked the entire march, was in the spotlight for drawing scores of youth to the rally.
“Contrary to some reports, the protestors did not defy a court order, although the police tried to stop us in many places. Whenever they showed us orders restraining individuals, we respected that and did not join the rally in those specific areas,” he said.
Social media was flooded with images of scores of people, wearing masks and black headbands saying “#P2P”, as they marched braving heavy rains in some areas and large police presence everywhere. The large turnout reflected the widely shared concern about how the Rajapaksa government is treating the country’s Tamil-speaking people, according to S.C.C. Elankovan, civil society activist and one of the organisers.
“The government is being extremely insensitive, very unreasonable, and is shutting out any space there is for dialogue. A totalitarian government like this endangers the rights and freedoms of not just minority communities. It will also threaten the Sinhalese majority,” he said, adding: “I hope this struggle inspires people in the south to raise their voices.”
It was also “reassuring”, Mr. Elankovan said, to meet many Tamil youth, who “sincerely appreciate” the need to work with the Muslims and Malaiyaha [Hill Country] Tamils. “In fact, they see value in such an inclusive space, where they can engage not just with fellow minorities, but also with progressive Sinhalese people to forge a strong and meaningful alliance to fight oppressive, divisive ideologies,” he said. But it will take “much work and time” to get there, he admitted.
Over a decade may have passed since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, but its history and aftermath continue to shape the everyday reality of survivors, who live amid the shadows of death and destruction. Conversations about the main warring actors, be it the armed forces or the LTTE, remain very sensitive, triggering strong sentiments and quick reactions, leaving little room for anything between.
During last week’s rally, some participants chose to remember those who died during the war, including LTTE leaders, setting off a tense social media debate. The LTTE that fought the armed forces until 2009, is hugely popular among Tamils from the north and east, including those living abroad, even though some from the Tamil community remain fiercely critical of the organisation. On the other hand, for Sri Lanka’s southern polity and much of the Sinhala Buddhist constituency, the separatist organisation is anathema.
“When we originally planned the rally, we decided to focus on the present moment and contemporary issues. There was no plan to commemorate the LTTE. But it was a democratic protest that was open to everyone, and everyone has the right to remember and commemorate the dead,” Mr. Rasamanickam said.
For organisers, the rally was an attempt at bringing together diverse issues and voices, despite differences and contradictions.
After years of strained Tamil-Muslim relations since the 1990s — when the LTTE forcibly evicted northern Muslims — recent parliamentary interventions by Tamil legislators M.A. Sumanthiran and G.G. Ponnambalam, challenging the government’s mandatory cremation policy for COVID-19 victims, was seen as a welcome shift. Organisers of the rally hope that the inclusion of the contentious issue, along with the demand for a fair wage for estate Tamils, marks the beginning of a concerted resistance from the country’s minority communities.
But some, like Jaffna-based activist Shiyana Niyaz, remain sceptical.
“Firstly, I don’t know to what extent Muslims were included in the process of planning this rally or framing the demands. We also have to see whether Tamils are able to work with Muslims on matters like jobs and resettlement of displaced Muslims in future,” she said, pointing to areas where the communities have competing interests.
Further, observing that the rhetoric of the rally was “still Tamil nationalist”, she said: “I understand and respect Tamils’ call for justice and human rights. They have suffered a lot.”
But it is time that people’s right to food, livelihoods, housing, and jobs are also taken up, Ms. Niyaz noted. “Otherwise, allies of the government will make more inroads here, as we saw in the last elections.”