A place of beauty and rest where you can relax and unwind, but not if you happen to be Tamil —
The 18th of May 2009 marked the end of a horrific civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government. In Matara and Colombo the end of the war was marked with a victory parade and triumphalist celebrations. During a speech, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said: ‘We are not celebrating victory in a war, we are celebrating peace’. Yet, is this an accurate depiction of Sri Lanka? Is Sri Lanka at peace?
Over half a decade has passed and yet Sri Lanka has continuously failed to address the human rights abuses and allegations of war crimes. These crimes include the deliberate shelling of no-fire zones, execution of captured combatants and the sexual abuse and slaughter of civilians. Whilst these crimes are undoubtedly outrageous, what is more alarming is the continuing system of oppression which is illustrated by the failure to account for thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs). The UN Secretary General has estimated that there are over 40,000 individuals unaccounted for. Families of these people continue to struggle with their loss, and the uncertainty surrounding the disappearances weighs heavily upon them as they hold hope that one day they will be reunited.
Beyond the mass of missing people, there is also a climate of fear that has been induced within the Tamil community as Sri Lankan officials are accused of sexually abusing Tamils for alleged links to the LTTE. In 2013 Human Rights Watch issued a report detailing sexual violence committed by members of the Sri Lankan security forces from 2006-2012. It documents 75 cases of rape: 31 against men, 41 against women, and 3 against boys under the age of 18. One of the most harrowing accounts is of a woman detained at Arunachalam camp after she managed to flee Mullivaikal during the last weeks of the conflict in April 2009. She told Human Rights Watch that army personnel took her to another camp in October 2009:
‘They questioned me about my links with the LTTE and asked about my activities. I said I was forced to work for LTTE and didn’t know anything. They didn’t believe me. They beat me, pulled my hair, and banged my head on a wall. They beat me with their hands and kicked me with their boots.
One of the soldiers said, “We will teach you a lesson”. I lost consciousness that day and when I came to, I realized I had been raped. Then more soldiers came and raped me. This went on for many days. I can’t remember how many times and how many soldiers raped me’.
Her tragic story is just one of many and the refusal to address these claims has created a climate of impunity under which victims are afraid to speak out.
These acts of physical and sexual violence alongside the thousands of missing people form but a small insight into the struggle of the Tamil community. But we must also acknowledge the economic struggle. Recent floods have devastated Sri Lanka, in particularly the north-east, where almost 100,000 people have been affected. These floods have devastated housing and damaged refugee camps in Lonappulam and Valikamam north. They have also had a catastrophic effect upon arable farmland which rural communities depend upon.
The floods have been yet another disaster which Tamil communities are forced to bear. However, alone they do not explain the full extent of their economic struggle. Since the end of the war, the north-east has been occupied by a heavy military presence which has become increasingly involved ‘in agriculture and commercial activities [thus posing] further obstacles on the difficult road to economic recovery for northern farmers and businesses’, according to the International Crisis Group. Within Vanni, numerous plots of land have been taken over by the army and used to cultivate different crops instead of seeing it returned to the original owners. The precise number of irregular land acquisitions is not known; it is estimated by some to run into several hundred acres, possibly thousands.
Furthermore, the military has involved itself in a number of commercial activities in the north such as the army-run restaurants and shops, trading posts, hotels and guest houses. Consequently, the commercial activity undertaken by the military has undermined Tamil businesses and deterred the local community away from starting their own enterprises. Defenders of the government often turn to development projects which have commissioned the building of roads, bridges and culverts. However, as TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran has stated, ‘they do not benefit the people’. Tamils in the north-east struggle with housing shortages, a lack of jobs, dire poverty and food insecurity. In Kilinochchi 26 per cent of households live on less than half of the official poverty line.
Lastly, it is important to note the symbolic defamation of Tamil culture and identity within Sri Lanka. This cultural suppression takes several forms, yet arguably the most significant is the refusal to allow Tamils to celebrate Maaveerar Naal (Great Heroes’ Day). This celebration allowed Tamils to mourn their departed and remember their sacrifice, yet it has been branded by the security forces as support for terrorists. Any sympathy shown for the departed is met with swift repression and arrests thus furthering the erosion of Tamil identity.
Whilst it may be easier to turn a blind eye to the struggle of the Tamil people and presume that ‘peace’ has emerged, this is clearly a fallacy. Instead, there is continued repression, intimidation and subjugation that are being used to erode Tamil identity and the assertion of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. It is for this reason that we must #BreakTheSilence.