Sri Lanka: Back to square one

Feizal Samath

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka there are few signs that any positive lessons have been learnt from the gory events that changed this island nation’s history and sent a once booming economy into a downward trajectory. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives and an often-quoted political analyst, says billions of dollars have since been spent on the quarter century of ethnic strife that followed ‘Black July’.

“We are nowhere near a solution than we ever were,” he said, adding that the present government does not seem interested in a negotiated settlement. Most victims from the Tamil minority community are reluctant to speak about the terrible tragedy that befell them on July 24, 1983 and thereafter. “Why talk about the past?” said one elderly Tamil woman when asked to comment.

Widespread riots broke out in Colombo and southern Sri Lanka a day after 13 government soldiers were killed in an ambush by Tamil rebels in the northern city of Tamil-dominated Jaffna. Angry mobs from the majority Sinhalese community retaliated by attacking and killing Tamil residents, raping their women and setting fire to homes and shops. The pogrom followed bouts of anti-Tamil violence in 1958 and 1977. A Tamil industrialist, K Vignarajah, says, “Sri Lanka would have been a paradise and even better than Singapore if not for this conflict”.

Perhaps the worst consequence of the protracted conflict has been the rising level lawlessness in society prompted by a sense of impunity that some say has origins in the fact that none of the perpetrators of the 1983 violence were brought to trial. Human rights violations, by all parties, have steadily increased over the years.

Lately, the number of abductions of civilians — mo-stly Tamils suspected of being connected to the LTTE — has intensified, while assaults and harassment of journalists, critical of the war, have increased. This has not helped the cause of Tamil-Sinhalese amity.

Clashes between the Tamils and the Sinhalese majority originated with British colonial rulers favouring the Tamils in administrative, educational, and economic situations. Post independence the situation reversed with the majority community ruling the country and cornering plum jobs and the larger chunk of resources. Soon Sinhalese and Tamil sub-nationalism began to grow and became sharply polarised.

“I am not bitter and have no regrets but I feel sad for my country,” says Chris Kamalendran, an experienced Tamil journalist and a victim of the riots. Kamalendran, living with his father, mother and other family members in the predominantly Sinhalese town of Homagama, south of Colo-mbo, saw a mob —of mostly neighbours — set fire and loot the family home. “I was angry, hurt and wanted revenge,” he recalled, adding that he was restrained by moderate Sinhalese friends.

Kamalendran — like many Tamils and Sinhalese — is desperate for a solution in his lifetime so that “my daughter won’t suffer”. Believing in communal amity, he has married a Sinhalese woman and has a daughter who follows Buddhism, the majority religion. But, he says, the problem will drag on “until a national leader capable of providing a viable political settlement emerges”.