“Anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”- Neelan Tiruchelvam


Our nation since ‘independence’ has, for the most part, been in the grip of ethnically hostile actions by the Tamil speaking minority against the state to correct the “anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity” as Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, a former moderate legislator and an internationally respected academic so eloquently said when the country was fighting a bloody Civil War.

The Tamil rebellion was finally crushed with direct and indirect military assistance from many countries and war brought to an end in May 2009. It was only made possible with many human right violations causing human massacres. Thereafter for six years with rebel forces exterminated the state did nothing to heal the hearts and minds of Tamil speaking minorities in the North and East provinces. The post-war reconciliation was fragile mainly due to the deployment of largely mono ethnic military in the former conflict areas and the demerger of the two provinces. The tensions between ethno religious minority political leaders and the military in the North and East were observed after hostilities ended there in 2009 and the ethnic problem remains unresolved even after seven years.

The State military tri-services ably assisted by foreign military experts and modern arsenal cornered the Tamil fighters by land from north, west and south by narrowing them into a small confined area, while at sea on the east foreign battleships blocked the sea route that ensured rebels were starved of ammunitions depleting their armory. As the battle dragged on with reduced fire power attempts were made by foreign governments for a ceasefire to stop the fighting. The top echelons of government however ordered the military to move in and conclude the war and many incidents of what took place were recorded on camera as daily reports were posted on social media. Many thousands of civilians moved to the no fire zones informed by the government, yet as many without mobility were caught in the confined area perished and the earth they stood was solied by their blood turned red. Allegations remains to date that war crimes were committed by the State military and the Tamil rebels during the last few days leading to the end of war in May 2009.

Then top echelons of government refused to accept this bitter truth, even saw this incident as a subtle ‘international conspiracy’ to belittle the country’s war victory and described that any investigations would humiliate the armed forces. The former President went a step further attempting to mobilize this issue for political advantage and called for ‘war heroes’ to be ‘protected’; in an attempt to cover-up the top echelons of government, who were very much involved and in control of events leading to the closing stages of the battle and beyond after the guns were silenced at the battlefront. At the time, there was a perception that the regime was engaged in a policy of ‘watchful expectation and masterly inactivity’ with regard to the many transgressions committed against the minorities; as the government, with elections on the horizon, was keen to woo the Sinhala Buddhist voter who constitutes a majority of the electorate.

In fact the alleged war crimes were committed over three decades and include attacks on civilians and civilian buildings by both sides; executions of combatants and prisoners by both sides; enforced disappearances by the military and paramilitary groups backed by them; acute shortages of food, medicine, and clean water for civilians trapped in the war zone. In 2011 the Darusman Report, named after the chairman of the panel Marzuki Darusman produced by a panel of experts for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon revealed a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained by the Government of Sri Lanka. The panel found that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months of the civil war, most as a result of indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan military and called for an independent international investigation into the alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed by both sides. Naturally the then government did reject the entire the Darusman Report and their uneasiness to proceed with investigations dragged on for four years and finally caused a change of government in 2015.

It is encouraging to note that the National government that came to power has accepted the reality that the truth finding commissions are not a substitute but as complementary to prosecutions, however it is yet to make public the modalities and the extent of international involvements to hold investigations. The politics of the North and Eastern provinces at present is a very delicate. The President has conceded that it is necessary to strengthen the provincial administration and the civilian space in the two provinces be expanded for meaningful reconciliation to take place in the interest of the nation.

At this point it is necessary to recall that the provincial council system introduced in 1987 to find a solution to the ethnic problem was only a system of decentralization that too was never implemented properly. It is now necessary to devolve more powers to the provincial councils and reforms made at the center as discussed in an earlier posting in Northern Breeze. Fortunately, the government has just concluded gathering proposals from the public on reforms needed and for inclusion into the new constitution, a most progressive action by the state since country gained independence in 1947. If the reforms are implemented in full with the New Constitution in place and settling all other reconciliation related matters would give a meaningful solution to the ethnic problem and open the way for the country to go forward.