In May 2009, the Civil War between the Tamil Liberation Army LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and the government of Sri Lanka ended after bloody and extremely forceful battle, a devastating civil war which had been the ultimate result of the colonial policy of the British. Before the colonial period, the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority had had their own kingdoms. Afterwards the British created a centralized state and handed power over to the Sinhalese, who abused it to dominate the Tamils.
After the departure of the British, a painful history began for the Tamil minority that took decades of discrimination with partly violent action on the part of the Sinhalese majority. In several waves of refugees many Tamils came to Switzerland and found refuge against the pogroms, triggered by the Sinhalese. The Tamils' resistance intensified after having tried from 1948 to 1976 to improve their situation in a peaceful, non-violent way, however, without success. When repression became increasingly brutal and violent, the Tamils built up an armed resistance that was very successful initially. After 11 September 2001, the situation of Tamils worsened because their struggle for human rights was labeled terror. All Tamil organizations in 27 countries were declared terrorist organisations, consequently they ere prohibited and paralyzed.
The government of Mahinda Rajapakse was uncompromising and took ruthless action against the military arm of the LTTE and ended the fight with a cruel massacre, which has not been shed light on to date. In January of this year, there were elections in Sri Lanka, and a new government came to power. It appears to be more moderately-minded towards the Tamils and is working towards reconciliation between the two peoples. Professor S. J. Emmanuel, Catholic priest and the President of the Global Tamil Forum, explains in the following interview, what this means for the Tamil people.
Current Concerns: Almost six years have passed since the official end of the civil war. What happened to the Tamils after the Civil War?
Professor Emmanuel: The period after the Civil War was marked by an ultra-genocide. Genocide is defined as the mass murder of a people. With “Ultra-genocide” I mean the government's attempt to eradicate the existential root of the people and to eliminate their cultural and national identity. Immediately after the war, all Tamil war graves were leveled with bulldozers and the government built military buildings on them. The commemoration of the victims on the Tamil national holiday on 27 November was prohibited. It is an attempt by the government to erase the memory of the war and the war victims from the memory of the people!
That certainly severely hurt the people.
Yes, they are not allowed to visit the graves of their relatives. Also it is not allowed to name streets after the names of deceased people who were esteemed among the Tamil nation. The plan is to make the people forget about the LTTE, their memory is to fade away.
What did the government do to attain that goal?
There were enforced Singhalese settlements in the Tamil areas. I do not mind about Singhalese and Tamils living together in one area, but if this is a planned procedure and Singhalese are forced to live there, I do reject it.
What else has the government of the previous president Rajapakse done?
They have disowned Tamils and taken their land. The Tamils were helpless since the government has enforced that with military presence. Tamil villages were re-named Singhalese. Street names were also changed. This demographic change is tantamount to genocide.
Did the Singhalese population support these operations?
This is something we need to understand. Rajapakse was the one who won the war against the terrorists. For this he was admired like a god by the Singhalese population. After 60 years he finally succeeded in defeating the LTTE. This is why the people supported everything he did.
Has anything changed for the Tamils after the January elections?
Yes, they have given the Tamils a bit of freedom and hope. I had recommended the Tamils to vote in order to obtain some change, a change of regime. A new government was urgently needed in the country. The new president has been elected because Tamils and Muslims voted and voted for him; otherwise he would not have succeeded.
Is the new president aware of this?
Yes, he said this in public and he travelled to Jaffna and Trincomalee to thank the Tamils. This is a different situation than the one with Rajapakse who had been voted for by the majority of the Singhalese. The Tamils had run the risk of electing him without previous concessions.
After the war, the new government had only talked but not acted positively. On the contrary: The Tamils’ life became even wearier. Also the promised compensation and reconciliation after the civil war was not realized. This is why the Tamils are now impatiently waiting for an improvement of the situation.
Is this realistic?
Well, let’s say there is hope. In the first 100 days the government wanted to improve their international relations. Before the war came to an end, the government had received weapons and financial support from 20 western governments. But after the victory in May 2009, they turned away from the US and the West, building up friendship with China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran. Thus the new government intends to improve its relations with the western world and India. In order to improve the relations, the new president has sent his foreign minister to many countries and international organisations. He himself has visited India, England, China and Pakistan. Secondly it intended to take some measures against the corruption by the Rajapakse family and its clans. And thirdly it wanted to change some parts of the constitution. For the Tamils this did not have a big effect except the facts that a part of the land was returned and that a civil government was installed instead of the military governor in the north and east of the country, so that the provincial governments could start working again. We Tamils are still awaiting a political solution.
Is there any hope?
The new president is not an unknown. He has political experience. Under Rajapakse he was minister of health and during the last days of the Civil War he was even deputy president since Rajapakse was staying in Jordan. Thus he was also head of the army, but he had no say there. The power was exclusively in the hands of the military, commanded by the [president’s] brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse.
Then he has defeated his party colleague in the elections?
With a coalition plan, the former president Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike and the former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinge stealthily snatched the current president from his former party and made him the candidate of the opposition party in the presidential elections. He had left Rajapakse’s party and joined the opposition. Other ministers also did this. They are now again in government.
Is there only one party governing?
No, it is a coalition of several parties, Sirisena had aimed for. That resulted in a different character of the government. That was a wise decision.
Is there already any sign that it is taking effect?
The new government has a program that promises to reduce the power of the President within the first 100 days. Now, the government tries to change the Constitution. Probably, there will a new election of the Parliament be taking place at the end of June 2015.
Did the President stick to it?
The President supported the decision and began to address the problem of corruption. For example Rajapakse has built a huge palace and an airport to prove his power to the Tamils in Jaffna. Sirisena, the new President, has changed it to a hotel and opened it to the general public now.
Where did the huge amount of money come from, with which Rajapakse could fund his projects after the civil war had driven the country almost in ruin?
You must see that from the geo-strategic viewpoint. China has a great interest in good relations with Sri Lanka due to its strategic location. Agreements with Sri Lanka have been concluded, and lots of money and aid came into the country. Thus, China had always some influence in Sri Lanka. One has begun to build a new port city in Colombo with funding from China. The new government has stopped the construction. The people were very unhappy about these projects.
Does his policy contribute to the improvement of the Tamils’ living conditions?
President Sirisena is seeking a reconciliation. He was in Jaffna and Trincomalee, as mentioned before, and promised an improvement of their situation to the people, still nothing concrete, but he encouraged the coming together of people.
Do the people of Sri Lanka feel the impact?
For the people who are affected by the years of civil war, there are still no direct improvements, but the situation has eased somewhat. For instance, the land the military had taken from them has been partially returned. One has reduced the military government in the province of Jaffna and handed over the operations to the elected provincial government. Thus the civil government and the provincial council can resume their activities. This is a hopeful start for all Tamils.
Who is that Sirisena?
In contrast to Rajapakse, who comes from the upper class and grew up in a political dynasty, Sirisena comes from a modest background. When Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka, he called him a person “rooted to his native soil”. Sirisena has rural roots, he is a man of the people.
Since the end of the Civil War Sri Lanka has refused to allow an UN Inquiring Commission to visit the country, in order to examine the potential war crimes that have been committed at the end of the Civil War. Is there any chance of change under the new President?
One will see. The geo-strategic position of Sri Lanka is of great importance with regard to this.
In what way?
In the final stage of the war nearly 20 states participated in the fight against the Tamil Tigers, which Bush described as a war against terrorism. After the end of the war these States expected gratitude by the Government, but Rajapakse focused more on China and Russia, which was perceived by the Western states as a great humiliation. Even worse – he had promised to the West to reconcile with the Tamils and to find a political solution. But immediately after the war, he started genocidal measures against the Tamils.
Who expressed particular dismay?
Since the United States with regard to the competition against China would like to control the trade routes of the Chinese, they tried to gain more influence on the situation, and wanted to make use of the UN Human Rights Council to this end.
They wanted to get a resolution passed that would have allowed to investigate into the activities during and after the Civil War. But the resolution was rejected by the majority of the Council with the argument that the United States and the former colonial powers would interfere with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
Did the United States give up after that?
No, they issued another resolution, which also was not agreed upon. One wanted to take Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court, which was, however, vetoed by China and Pakistan. But then, a third attempt was successful. An investigation of crimes against humanity in the last phase of the war of 2009 is now to be executed.
It’s an interesting question, why the West took action against the government only after the war. Crimes against the Tamils, and the strong discrimination have existed many years before.
Yes, this is indeed interesting. The former High Commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbor, and her successor have travelled to Sri Lanka during the Civil War and after the war and were in contact with Tamil victims of the war at that time. Moreover, they created a report which caused great displeasure at the UN, and they were labeled “white Tamil Tigers”. The Western States did nothing against the catastrophic situation in Sri Lanka.
How does the new High Commissioner for People’s rights, Zaid Ra’ad Al Hussein, perceive all this?
Zaid is interested in moving on and contributing to reconciliation between the peoples. He had wanted to come to Sri Lanka during the times of the former government but his entry was denied. In addition, the former government made a resolution which enacted an evaluation and a humanitarian rescue of the Tamils would be done first before the LTTE. That government did not want to cooperate with the Council of People’s Rights.
How does the current government behave?
It began to renew relationships to the west. The first visit, Sirisena made together with the exterior minister, was made to India. Later the President of India came to Sri Lanka and visited Colombo and Jaffna. The international situation for the governing of Sri Lanka is not bad in general.
How will the Resolution be carried forward, which was accepted by the Council?
Its implementation was postponed until September. The High Commissioner Zaid Hussein wants to travel to Sri Lanka first and make his personal observations. According to this argumentation, one wanted to give the government more time, initially. The new Sri Lankan government wanted to gain more time in order to make its own evaluation. It accepted, just as the former government did, no international evaluation. They wanted to have international help for appointing their own evaluation commission. The Tamils and the victims of war, because of their painful experience, have no confidence that such an international commission would be able to judge fairly.
Recently, Didier Burkhalter was in Sri Lanka and met with the new government. How would you judge this visit?
I estimate this very positively. Switzerland has helped the Tamils in difficult times. Even today, politics regarding the Tamils, is good. In my opinion, it is a sign of hope when Didier Burkhalter travels to Sri Lanka.
Professor Emmanuel, thank you sincerely for this interview. •
(Interview: Thomas Kaiser)
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