Sri Lanka After the War

15 February 2009

Sri Lanka After the War

By Gwynne Dyer

The greatest mistakes are made on the morrow of the greatest victories. Sri Lanka is now approaching a decisive victory in its 26-year war against Tamil separatism, and it is about to make a very big mistake.

“While separatist terrorism must be eradicated,” wrote Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, “it is important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urge government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens.”

Wickrematunge left that on his computer, to be published if he was murdered, which he duly was last month. He knew it was going to happen, and he believed that he knew who would be responsible: the government. Which is why he addressed President Mahinda Rajapaksa directly in his post-mortem article.

It was the first time that most of Wickrematunge’s readers learned that he and the president had been close friends for a quarter-century.

Indeed, they regularly met late at night at the president’s house, alone or with a few other old friends.

“In the wake of my death,” Wickrematunge wrote, “I know you (President Rajapaksa) will make all the usual sanctimonious noises…but like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. [Almost certainly Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother.] Not just my life but yours too depends on it.”

Like the United States under President Bush, Sri Lanka has ceased to respect the law in its fight against “terrorism”. Since the Tamil minority began fighting for a separate state in 1983, over 70,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka, the majority of them civilians — and since President Rajapaksa took power in 2004 fourteen journalists have been murdered by unknown assailants.

Rajapaksa is now on the brink of destroying the rebel army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Tamil Tigers”). Even one year ago they still controlled some 15,000 sq. km (6,000 sq. mi) in the north and north-east of the island, where they maintained all the institutions of a sovereign state. But the relentless offensive of the Sri Lankan army has now reduced them to only a couple of hundred square kilometres (less than a hundred square miles) of territory.

Within a week or two, that will be gone too, and what remains of the Tamil Tigers will no longer control a pseudo-state. Good riddance, for they were brutal extremists who killed their own Tamil people, in order to enforce unquestioning obedience, just as readily as their suicide bombers killed the majority Sinhalese population. But that doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka can just go back to the kind of country it was before the fighting began in 1983. The Tamils had a reason to revolt.

Tamil-speaking Hindus have been part of Sri Lanka’s complex ethnic and religious mosaic for centuries, but they are only 12 percent of the population. They got along well enough with the Sinhalese-speaking, Buddhist majority when the island was first united under British imperial rule in the early 19th century, but after that the relationship went rapidly downhill.

The British, in typical divide-and-rule style, favoured the Tamil minority in education and in civil service jobs. Sinhalese resentment grew rapidly, and the first Sinhalese-Tamil riots were in 1939. As in the subsequent bouts of killing, most of the victims were Tamils.

Once independence arrived in 1948, the Sinhalese used their majority to pass laws giving members of their own community preference for university entrance and government jobs, and Sinhala was declared the sole national language. As Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic nationalism grew more extreme, some of the riots in the 1960s and 1970s verged on anti-Tamil pogroms.

By the late 1970s the process of setting up a shadow Tamil state in the north and north-east had begun. Open war broke out in 1983, with the Tamil Tigers rapidly eliminating the rival Tamil separatist groups and establishing totalitarian control over the population under their rule.

Twenty-six years later, the Tamil Tigers’ army has finally been crushed, and the Sri Lankan state (in practice, the Sinhalese state) is triumphant. But the 12 percent of the population who are Tamils will still not accept unequal status, and they are not going away.

This is the time when a peace that gives the Tamils equal rights and autonomous local governments in the areas where they are a majority could secure the country’s future, but it is most unlikely to happen.

Sinhalese nationalism is as intolerant as ever, and now it is triumphalist to boot. Moreover, the rapid growth of a “national security state” under President Rajapakse has undermined democracy and largely silenced criticism of government policies. The forecast, therefore, is for a reversion to guerilla war in the north, and continuing campaigns of murder by both the government and Tamil extremists in the rest of the country.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 10. (“It was…friends”; “Like…assailants”; and “The British…Tamils”)