Seven Tamil parties have called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “urge” the Sri Lankan government to “keep its promises” of devolution for the Tamil-majority areas of the South Asian island. The parties, led by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA, the main Tamil political bloc), argue that, on the basis of devolution, an ultimate federal settlement within a united Sri Lanka is possible.
The letter containing the petition was handed over by a delegation of MPs from these parties to Gopal Baglay, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo.
The Tamil parties have been pursuing direct Indian involvement for years, with repeated calls to New Delhi, but the issue does not appear to be high on the Indian government’s agenda.
Tamil MP Mathiaparanan A. Sumanthiran said in an interview that India “has a legitimate role to play with regard to the settlement of the Tamil national question.” The MP recalled that New Delhi and Colombo signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987, which was supposed to help settle the violent conflict in the island. This is an “international bilateral agreement” in force and must be honoured, Sumanthiran insisted on.
Indeed, India has repeatedly demanded that Colombo implement the agreement and guarantee the rights of Tamils. New Delhi has even done so in international fora such as the UN Human Rights Council and in high-level visits to Sri Lanka, such as that of Modi himself in 2015. Indian pressure, however, has not gone much further.
War is over, but the conflict remains unresolved
The context of 1987 and today’s bears little resemblance. The 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed in the midst of a war that had begun four years earlier and lasted until 2009. The war pitted the Sri Lankan army against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (better known as the Tamil Tigers), a pro-independence guerrilla group that came to control much of Tamil-majority eastern and northern Sri Lanka.
Approximately 25% of Sri Lankans belong to one of three Tamil-speaking groups in the country: Sri Lankan Tamils —who have inhabited the island for more than a millennium, mostly Hindu with a Christian minority—, Indian Tamils —Hindu, the descendants of people arrived to the island from India during the 19th and 20th centuries—, and Sri Lankan Moors —Muslims. The Tigers’ base of support was mostly found among Sri Lankan Tamils.
After independence from the UK, the Sri Lankan government imposed the exclusive official use of Sinhala, the language spoken by the Buddhist-majority Sinhalese people (who comprise 75% of the island’s inhabitants). This excluded Tamils not speaking Sinhala from public service.
On the other hand, several public programmes for the settlement of rural areas were perceived by the Tamils as an attempt to Sinhalaise areas that had been traditionally Tamil. A climate of confrontation was created that led to episodes of clashes between Sinhalese and Tamil civilians. One of the most serious was the 1977 anti-Tamil pogrom, in which hundreds of Tamils were killed by Sinhalese mobs.
In 1983, the Tamil Tigers launched an armed conflict against Sri Lanka with the aim of gaining independence for the north and east of Sri Lanka and founding a new country there, Tamil Eelam. During the first years of the conflict, the Tigers received assistance from India —where tens of millions of Tamils live— and New Delhi forced the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. In exchange for ending its support for the Tigers and sending a peacekeeping force to the island (the IPKF), New Delhi got Colombo to agree on devolution for the Northern and Eastern provinces, to merge them —thus forming a province of Tamil Eelam— and to grant Tamil official status.
The Tigers, however, refused to disarm, and the IPKF came into conflict with the Tamil guerrillas themselves. The India-Tigers rift culminated in 1991 with the suicide assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tiger guerrilla fighter.
The IPKF withdrew from Sri Lanka and the war continued until 2009, when the Sri Lankan army conquered the last remaining Tiger-held territory and killed their founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord has only been partially fulfilled. Already in 1987, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which instituted a system of autonomy for the provinces and made Tamil language official. But Colombo never agreed to transfer to the provinces all the powers envisaged, especially those relating to land and police, while providing insufficient funds for the management of devolved powers, such as education and health. The Sri Lankan president reserved for himself supreme powers over the whole system and, through a constitutional amendment in 2020, granted himself new ones. In addition, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces was declared illegal in 2006, thus frustrating the aspiration for a single Tamil Eelam polity.
Under such circumstances, the TNA-led party bloc claims that in fact there is no true devolution or autonomy system right now, but only an administrative decentralisation. The parties that have petitioned Narendra Modi would like to see the full implementation of the 13th Amendment as a starting point for their final goal to turn Sri Lanka into a federal state.
The second largest Tamil political bloc, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), believes that devolution will never serve as a stepping stone for that, and argues that Tamil parties should forget about provincial councils and call instead for the establishment of a Tamil state, federated with the rest of Sri Lanka, on the basis of the Tamils’ right to self-determination.
The Sri Lankan government has no intention of introducing such changes, and warns that any amendment would need to be acceptable to all the provinces in the country, including Sinhala-majority ones. Some sections within the ruling SLPP are even in favour of abolishing the provincial council system. The country’s president, hard-line Sinhalese nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa, says he wants to achieve “ethnic reconciliation” based on the country’s development, not devolution.
Serious human rights violations
What Gotabaya Rajapaksa means by “reconciliation” would take many lines to write. The president’s is just one in a long list of names linked to human rights violations perpetrated by the Sri Lankan forces in Tamil Eelam during and after the war. In 2009, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was serving as defence secretary in the Sri Lankan government during the tenure of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current prime minister, in the last phase of the war. Both former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Stephen Rapp and former Sri Lankan army commander Sarath Fonseka have accused Gotabaya Rajapaksa of ordering extrajudicial killings of Tamil Tiger leaders at the time of the guerrillas’ defeat.
Impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations is one of the great stains on the Sri Lankan state and one of the hallmarks of the Rajapaksa brothers’ policies. A 2015 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that all parties to the conflict, including both the military and the Tigers, committed “gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes.” As far as the state security forces are concerned, the report speaks of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, attacks on civilian areas, denial of humanitarian assistance, and detention and surveillance of internally displaced people simply because they were Tamils.
The only breakthroughs to investigate those allegations occurred during the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena (2015-2019), an opponent of the Rajapaksas. One example was the launch of the Office on Missing Persons in 2017, with a mandate to search for missing people, protect the interests of the victims, and make recommendations to the authorities.
Since their return to power in 2019, the Rajapaksas have re-imposed a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse that leaves little room for Tamil demands. As regards, for example, the Office on Missing Persons, Human Rights Watch argues that “Rajapaksa’s recent appointments to the office have gravely undermined its independence.” The human rights organisation further notes that the Rajapaksa government “has repeatedly harassed and threatened victims’ families, as well as lawyers and organizations representing them.”
Confronted with this situation and with the evidence that Tamil politicians have not been able to reverse it, a coalition of Tamil associations —including Muslim ones—, workers, students, religious leaders, and other sectors of the civil society organised a thousands-strong impressive march over 400 kilometres between Pottuvil and Polikandy in February 2021. The Tamil civil society march demanded an end to the militarisation of Tamil Eelam, to the persecution of Tamil journalists and to land grabbing. The demands also included the release of Tamil political and war prisoners, the truth about the whereabouts of thousands disappeared during the conflict, and the right to commemorate those killed during the war. The set of demands culminated in the call for a political solution for the Tamil people, validated through a referendum.
The march took place during the covid pandemic. On that pretext, several Sri Lankan courts tried to ban it. On the other hand, groups of saboteurs tried to stop the march, without success.
As regards covid, protesters also denounced the fact that the Sri Lankan government was forcing the burning of the corpses of people who had died of the disease, against all scientific evidence. Muslim tradition wants the bodies to be buried. Protesters denounced the government’s order as gross discrimination against Tamil-speaking Moors.
Just one year after the march was held —one of the largest mobilisations since the end of the war— protests continue in Tamil Eelam. A demonstration by mothers demanding to know the whereabouts of their missing children and relatives was blocked by the police earlier in January so that the women could not take their grievances to Justice Minister Ali Sabry. The Sri Lankan government remains where it was: turning its back on the victims, and ignoring the collective demands of the Tamil people.