Opinion: A year on, Sri Lanka suffers

One year ago, the war in Sri Lanka ended. But the events since May 2009 have proven that the country is still in need of critical dialogue and reflection.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Sri Lanka’s military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the end of the island’s civil war. In Colombo, the mood is festive — or was until heavy rains postponed a celebratory parade planned for May 18th. During rehearsals, decorated soldiers hoisted Sri Lankan flags and filled Galle Face Green in preparation for the affair.

The Ministry of Defense has declared this week, “Ranaviru Week,” a commemoration of military forces that facilitated the end of war. The week, in many ways, symbolizes the government’s year-long approach to post-war Lanka: celebration and accomplishment are the keys to moving forward.

Sri Lankans abroad don't speak of celebration, though. In Toronto, Washington and other cities beyond Sri Lanka’s borders, members of the diaspora rally in the streets and protest in front of monuments, embassies and symbolic seats of power. They use phrases like “war crimes,” “murder” and “mourning” to urge international and domestic communities to acknowledge those who were killed and those who fought for the homeland.

As I watch the mood in Colombo and read the protest signs, two questions enter my mind: Since the war’s end, what has Lanka become? Where does the “struggle” lie now?

Despite the government’s declared defeat of terrorism last year, a culture of fear continues to permeate Sri Lankan civil society. President Mahinda Rajapakse was re-elected for a second term in January, and citizens voted for a new parliament in the first, post-war series of elections. But unchecked violence, corruption and intimidation tainted these supposedly democratic polls.

Articles in the March issue of Himal Southasian, a South Asian news analysis magazine, and the April 3 issue of The Economist condemned the electoral process and the government’s complicity in violating election rules and obstructing aid. The Sri Lankan Customs Department
seized both magazine issues.

Three weeks later, President Rajapakse appointed former Labor Minister Mervyn de Silva as deputy media minister, despite public knowledge of his threats to media organizations and participation in the 2007 assault of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) television media
staff. Though he resigned from the post nearly 10 days later, the appointment suggests that the government is unwilling to acknowledge the violence and intimidation experienced by media in Sri Lanka.

As long as authorities can censor the media and deem magazines contraband, then it is clear that emergency rule, though partially relaxed on May 3, will remain a fixture of Sri Lankan life.

Complementing this culture of fear is a politics of exclusion. Prior attempts to develop a political solution — such as the All Party Representatives Committee's proposals for devolution of power — have failed to redress the grievances of minorities. Furthermore, the opposition, whose initial, pre-election momentum gave hope for social and political change, is now fragmented and disabled by political patronage and opportunism.

In an effort to appease a concerned international community and avoid further scrutiny on the issue of human rights, the government has introduced preliminary reforms to the constitution. But these reforms benefit the powers of the government and the presidency more than the Sri Lankan people.

Most concerning are proposals to abolish the two-term limit to the presidency and establish a senate chamber nominated by the government instead of the people. Such reforms would only weaken the rights and mobilizing capacity of minorities.

This is what Lanka has become. Clearly, the unbecoming process of critical reflection should take precedence over celebratory marches.

The question posed in the aftermath of war remains: What can be done to best assist post-war reconciliation and healing? Unfortunately, this question has been met with insufficient answers.

This week, the diaspora-based Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) met for the first time after holding delegate elections in early May. Their goal is to create a homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Their vision eerily echoes the nationalist and exclusionary politics of the 1976 Vaddukottai Resolution, which called for a separate Tamil state but pointedly excluded Up-Country Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims.

More to the point, as TGTE discusses its aspirations abroad, those displaced within Sri Lanka — including Muslims, Up-Country Tamils, and northen and eastern Tamils — are eager to reassemble the pieces of their lives into some sense of normalcy and peace. That process is taking place within a unified but diverse Lankan polity that the TGTE has yet to acknowledge.

The TGTE has not been able to accept the multiculturalism that has defined Sri Lanka since pre-colonial times. Rather, TGTE's separatist demands — not to mention their former links to the LTTE — only further the government’s justification for extending emergency rule.

The diaspora must reflect upon the long-term value of post-war tactics. Furthermore, Sri Lankans of the diaspora must initiate critical dialogue and sustain solidarity with people living in the country. Until then, their visions will be perceived as disengaged from reality and impractical for those living in Sri Lanka — where the true struggle lies.

An activist recently said, “History is neither the rule nor the law but a series of struggles. And it is up to us to be on the right side of the struggle.” For him, the struggle of activists and actors invested in the future of Sri Lanka is with the people and to remain accountable to all Sri Lankans, ensuring their dignity and safety.

After reviewing a year’s worth of marginalization, elitism and intimidation, I wholly agree. For a country whose history and present are marred by illegitimacy, violence and fear, it is imperative that Sri Lankans abroad and at home reach beyond the past and across all
boundaries that limit their potential.

Editor's note: The author, a member of Lanka Solidarity, has chosen to write anonymously for security purposes.