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Urgent political solution in SL needed

October 24, 2009

October 2009 | ISSN 1449-4418
The recent emotional appeals by 253 Tamils seeking refuge in Australia from their boat in Merak, Indonesia, highlight the urgent need for a political solution to power sharing in Sri Lanka, writes Larry Marshall, Project Officer for the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University. He was born in Sri Lanka. More

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  1. Australians for Tamil Justice permalink*
    October 24, 2009 3:50 pm


    2009 | ISSN 1449-4418

    The recent emotional appeals by 253 Tamils seeking refuge in Australia from their boat in Merak, Indonesia, highlight the urgent need for a political solution to power sharing in Sri Lanka, writes Larry Marshall, Project Officer for the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University. He was born in Sri Lanka.

    In Sri Lanka the brutal civil war, which took nearly 100,000 lives and seemed so intractable, has suddenly ended. In May 2009 the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) crushed the decades-old separatist campaign waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and killed their elusive and ruthless leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

    It is important to note that China underwrote the war against the LTTE. When the United States stopped direct aid to Sri Lanka because of its human rights record in 2007, Beijing came to Colombo’s rescue. China’s armaments (and their ally Pakistan’s) gave the GOSL the firepower to smash the Tiger’s highly trained war machine.

    China is building a $1 billion port in Hambantota in the south. The Times of India reports this as part of China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy to control crucial international passageways for trade and oil between the Indian and Pacific oceans. China is now the biggest foreign donor to Sri Lanka*1.

    The military victory was absolute. However, local and international human rights groups have called for inquiries into the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians in the final months of the war when a ferocious GOSL bombing campaign was conducted away from the eyes of the world’s media*2.

    The GOSL claimed the casualties occurred because the LTTE leaders were making hostages of their own people, using a ‘human shield’ as the army advanced on their final stronghold. However, a furor erupted in August when Channel 4 in Britain aired video footage from Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka allegedly showing government troops summarily executing Tamils*3.

    Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has been dubbed Hela Raja, the ‘king of the island’ for winning the ‘unwinnable war’. The Sinhalese, who make up 74 per cent of the population, are triumphant. The Tamils who are a minority (13 per cent) are vulnerable and apprehensive. The question now is: can this president win the peace? Can he reassure the Tamil people, who trace their ancestry back over 2000 years on this idyllic island, that, although they are a minority, they are equal and valued citizens of the new Sri Lanka?

    Since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 Tamils have claimed that political, economic and racial discrimination has been commonplace at the hands of the central governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. This lack of inclusion in the nation-building project, they argue, drove the Tamils to support the armed struggle for a separate Tamil state.

    The most contentious issue is the fate of almost 250,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). These Tamil families are non-combatants who once lived under the tutelage of the LTTE in a de-facto state it had carved out of the north and the east of Sri Lanka, the area claimed as ‘Eelam,’ an ancient Tamil homeland. They have been the innocents caught in the crossfire, and they have been displaced many times before as the war raged around them. They are now incarcerated in government detention camps as the monsoon rains descend, bringing fears of disease and death. Claims of disappearances and maltreatment abound.

    The GOSL argues that they cannot return to their villages for two reasons. Firstly, time is required to ‘de-mine’ the areas that were recently the site of a ferocious war. And second, there may be LTTE cadres hiding amongst the civilians who must be weeded out as a matter of ‘national security’.

    The UN Human Rights Representative Walter Kaelin has insisted that the IDPs should be processed quickly and allowed to return to their homes or to host families in the community*4. The International Crisis Group told the European Parliament in early October that ’such restrictions on freedom in the absence of due process are a violation of both national and international law’*5.

    The incarceration of Tamil civilians by the GOSL is highly sensitive and symbolic. The huge Tamil diaspora scattered in Canada, Britain, Europe and Australia watches with trepidation. Boatloads of fearful Tamils from the north are now risking their lives to seek refuge elsewhere.

    The fate of the IDPs is viewed as a litmus test of how Tamils will fare under majority Sinhalese rule unhindered by a countervailing force. In essence, the diaspora supported the fight for Tamil rights, even if a majority may have abhorred the methods used by the LTTE to prosecute their case. Therefore a failure by the GOSL to free the IDPs and treat them as respected citizens today might only fuel support for a new (armed?) struggle tomorrow. Unfortunately, the lessons of history are not always learned.

    A corollary is that President Rajapakse may have trouble turning off his huge war machine. The army is now more powerful than ever and the fragile institutions of democracy that suffered while the all-out war was being prosecuted are still weak and ineffective.

    Civil Society is largely silent and fearful in the face of arrests and killings of those who have dared to question the way the victory was won. Dissenting opinion against state policy is portrayed as unpatriotic and subversive.

    Yet the popularity of the government is stronger than ever. A string of recent provincial election victories by the governing party has indicated a possibility of early national polls. Rajapakse may also call forward the presidential poll (due in 2011) to cash in on his own popularity as a strong man.

    Some commentators even suggest that the hubris of the president may lead to constitutional changes aimed at extending his hold on power beyond his impending second term. Unfortunately, international calls for an end to triumphalism may fall on deaf political ears. But whatever the president decides, he may find that making peace is harder than waging war.

    In a statement on Sri Lanka to the Australian Parliament on 14 September, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, spoke of the urgent need to resettle the IDPs and to move towards political reconciliation. He said:

    Australia has consistently stated that the solution to the conflict was never going to be by military means alone. The time is here for the Sri Lankan Government to win the peace and to forge an enduring political settlement for all Sri Lankans. This will require political reform and rapprochement between all parties and communities*6.

    These are wise words from a friend of the Sri Lankan people. But if Australia is to remain a friend of the Sri Lankan people then it must accept that IDPS, and others like them from Afghanistan or Iraq, have a right to arrive here and make their claims under the international refugee convention which Australia and over 140 other countries have signed and ratified. It is important to note that Indonesia is not a signatory to this convention.


    1. Even India, Sri Lanka’s long-time ally and the traditionally dominant power in South Asia, has found itself sidelined in the past two years—to its obvious irritation. ‘China is fishing in troubled waters,’ Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s Home Minister, warned last week.
    2. ‘We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. In too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators of this violence are not punished, and so this impunity encourages further attacks.’—Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State in UN.
    3. ‘The man is young, naked, bound and blindfolded; a corpse lying across his legs. A soldier approaches…..’
    4. ‘There is a growing concern from the international community that the pace of progress is simply too slow,’ Walter Kaelin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, told IRIN.
    5. ‘The government of Sri Lanka has been imprisoning without charge over a quarter of a million ethnic Tamils displaced by the conflict. The state has locked them in internment camps in the north of the country. The camps are surrounded by barbed wire, and as an incident just this past weekend in Vavuniya demonstrates, the Sri Lankan army will shoot at anyone who tries to escape.’

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