After the civil war, the stifling impasse in Sri Lanka

The future of the Tamil people is dependent on forging a new vision for themselves and the entire country, based on equality and freedom

Updated - May 18, 2024 07:59 am IST

Published - May 18, 2024 12:16 am IST

At the venue of a commemoration ceremony for victims of the war, in  a village in northern Sri Lanka

At the venue of a commemoration ceremony for victims of the war, in a village in northern Sri Lanka | Photo Credit: AFP

A decade-and-a-half cannot heal the deep wounds from a protracted civil war. Tens of thousands of people perished across Sri Lanka’s north and east even as it witnessed enormous destruction. Concerns of truth, accountability and justice linger, while questions of past and future political choices loom large. In this context, the emergence of a new generation should at the very least begin to change the social, economic, and political landscape of a war-torn region. However, economic reconstruction has hardly progressed, with subsequent crises setting back development further. Politics remains polarised and fraught without a political settlement. The social aspirations of the Tamil middle class remain wedded to somehow joining the diaspora, even as the working people living in the island’s north and east remain destitute with few options. How does one explain this post-war impasse? And, what is the way out for Sri Lanka’s war-torn people?

Derailed reconstruction

Trains that were not seen by generations in the north resumed a decade ago. Banks and supermarkets were built along the carpeted roads, even as plush hotels opened for tourists and the Tamil diaspora began visiting Jaffna town. Yet, beneath this seeming prosperity, just a few miles into the countryside, the travails of the masses were evident in their desperation for stable livelihoods. Just as some rural communities began overcoming these challenges, when their fields, home gardens and coconut trees began bearing fruit, Sri Lanka descended into chaos again.

The Easter terror bombings of April 2019 shook the country, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and now the economic crisis, the worst since Sri Lankan Independence. For a population that was surfacing from the dredges of war and dispossession, and turning its focus towards the education of its children and the employment of its youth, the current moment signals the loss of another generation.

Economic misery is seen nation-wide, as is outmigration with the long circling lines outside the passport office. For the deprived and the landless among the war-torn people, migration is out of question, economic opportunities are next to nil, and hunger is the new normal. Yet, there is no one to listen to them, much less to provide them support. Sinking in its crises, now compounded by International Monetary Fund-prescribed austerity measures, the state has abandoned them.

The myth of reviving the war-torn regions with the Tamil diaspora’s deep pockets stands exposed by the meagre flow of investment funds. The international donor development projects that focused on infrastructure after the war have hardly revived the local economy. In fact, individualised assistance by non-government organisations has only disempowered families and trapped them in dependence. Many families, especially women, have been pushed into predatory microfinance debt.

Tamil politics across the spectrum has been negligent about the concerns of local livelihoods, as they are beholden to their class and social interests, with one foot in the Tamil diaspora. Politicians who talk big on accountability, especially to international actors, hardly engage with ordinary people. They peddle the myth of diaspora remittances sustaining war-affected communities, when, in reality, such remittances only reach a very small segment of the urban Tamil middle class.

Polarisation and the minorities

For the economic and political trajectory in the North and East after the war, it is the Rajapaksa regime that must take much of the blame for its jingoistic war victory celebration, a continued militarisation and the vulgar projection of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. That said, it is unfortunate that Tamil nationalist politics continues to mirror its Sinhala counterpart in its self-sustenance through a polarising discourse. Little has changed in its dominant clamour for Tamil rights, as it harks back to the rhetoric of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, basks in enfeebling victimhood, and an unending faith in the international community. The regular post-war pilgrimages to the UN Human Rights Council by the political actors, social allies in civil society, and the virulent sections of the Tamil diaspora, conjure bombastic hopes in the Tamil public sphere. For them, this so-called accountability process is predicated on delivering international intervention.

In the meantime, political actors in the South and the North have hardly built social and economic bridges between the communities towards political reconciliation. Devolution of power to the regions and power-sharing at the centre have been repeatedly dumped for political expediency by those wielding power in Colombo. Indeed, that was the case with regime change in 2015, when a major opening towards a political settlement was lost in the rivalry between then President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The persisting intransigence of the national leadership, along with the takeover of lands owned by the Tamil and Muslim minorities by the state, and ongoing attacks on memorialisation of the war dead reflect a grim reality.

There was the historic opportunity with the election of the first Northern Provincial Council in 2013, but it ended its tenure with utter disgrace in 2018, where the Tamil nationalist leadership had nothing to show even in terms of political or economic vision for its constituencies. The racism and arrogance of the political elite in Colombo and the hollowness of the Tamil political leadership have been the bane of Sri Lankan politics. Within the North and the East, Tamil-Muslim relations remain strained. The Northern Muslims evicted in an act of ethnic cleansing by the LTTE in October 1990 have hardly been reintegrated into Jaffna. The Hill Country Tamils of Indian origin, or Malaiyaha Tamils, who were displaced from the plantations to the North during successive pogroms, and following their disenfranchisement, found little solidarity in the North. They became bonded labour, then the cannon fodder for the civil war, and many to this day remain landless or settled in land unsuitable for agriculture. Caste oppression in Jaffna is now reconsolidating by stealth around the temples funded by the Tamil diaspora, while some groups are attempting Hindutva-styled communal mobilisations.

Future of the Tamil people

Reflecting on the misery and dispossession of our people today, one is reminded of the powerful words of the Tamil leftist, V. Karalasingham. In his book titled, The Way Out for the Tamil speaking people, he had the following to say in 1963, just 15 years after Independence.

“We now come against a strange paradox. The Tamil speaking people have been led in the last decade by an apparently resolute leadership guided by the best intentions receiving not merely the widest support of the people but also their enthusiastic cooperation and yet the Tamil speaking people find themselves at the lowest ebb in their history. Despite all their efforts the people have suffered one defeat after another, one humiliation after another. How is one to explain the yawning gulf between the strivings of the people and the virtually hopeless impasse in which they find themselves?”

No one would have imagined six decades ago, how much worse the situation of the Tamil people could become, and to what decrepit depths Tamil politics could descend. The future of the Tamil people is dependent on rejecting bankrupt Tamil nationalism and forging a new vision for themselves and the entire country.

In the great revolt of 2022 or the ‘Aragalaya’, where Sri Lankans from different ethnic and religious backgrounds came together to chase away a President, who had claimed the status of a supreme war hero and custodian of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, there is inspiration for what our country can be.

Despite the authoritarian and economic repression today, the years ahead could take us on a different path, charted by the struggles for social and economic justice confronting the most formidable economic crisis in close to a century. The Tamil people must rethink their strategies, depart from the isolationist and suicidal politics that has reduced them to historical irrelevance, and join forces with all the peoples to determine not just their own future but also the democratic future of the country, based on equality and freedom.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is a political economist and Senior Lecturer, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

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