Sri Lanka’s Tamils under watchful eye of two Asian powers

Els presidents xinès, Xi Xinping, i de Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa (avui primer ministre), el 2014
Els presidents xinès, Xi Xinping, i de Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa (avui primer ministre), el 2014 Author: Oficina de Mahinda Rajapaksa @ Flickr
The victors’ peace continues to reign in Sri Lanka. 13 years after the end of a bloody and largely ignored civil war, no one knows for sure how many lives the conflict claimed. According to the United Nations, some 40,000 civilians and 15,000 combatants were killed, far fewer than the figure of 65,000 enquiries on missing persons received so far by the island’s foreign ministry, or the 147,000 victims reported by a prominent Tamil Catholic bishop. Far from the process of national reconciliation that successive governments successfully sold to the country’s Sinhala majority, the Tamil minority still awaits a resolution to a political conflict that originated in 1948, but whose aftermath is still being experienced.

An unhealed wound

Nearly 25 per cent of the people of ancient Ceylon belong to one of the country’s three Tamil-speaking groups. The Sri Lankan Tamils —mostly Hindu, but also Christian— as well as the Indian Tamils —Hindu— and the Sri Lankan Moors —Muslim— arrived on the island in one of several migration waves that took place in the 3rd century BC and during British colonisation.

With the advent of independence in 1948, Tamils began to see their rights cut. First, Tamils from India were denied citizenship and their political participation was curtailed. In 1956, the situation worsened with the declaration of Sinhala as the only official language and, years later, plans to colonise rural areas in historically Tamil territories were perceived as an attempt to Sinhalaise the Eastern Province. With the abolition of constitutional guarantees for minorities in the new Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, a climate of confrontation developed between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the Tamil minority. The idea of having their own state in the northeast of the country began to gain currency among many within the Tamil community.

Despite the creation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976 and the radicalisation of the conflict, it was not until 1983 that talk of a civil war began. The Black July riots and the killing of 13 soldiers unleashed a backlash against the Tamils and the killing of hundreds of them, as well as open fighting between the Colombo government and the LTTE, the latter enjoying support from India’s Tamils and exile networks in India, the UK, and Canada. Under Prabhakaran’s leadership, the Tigers brought together the entire insurgency and established a de facto state in the northeast.

The 10,000 to 15,000-strong Tamil Tigers came to control a quarter of Sri Lanka’s territory. At the end of 2005, the arrival of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Sri Lankan presidency marked the beginning of a military strategy that ultimately led the Tigers to surrender on 17 May 2009 after having been cornered in a 1 square kilometre strip, all its commanders having been killed. Years later, the root of the conflict remains unresolved and the country is more segregated than ever. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority is concentrated in the more affluent south, while the Tamil minority is mainly found in less developed, but highly militarised, regions in the north and east.

India and Tamil Nadu, the role of sub-state diplomacy

Seven Tamil parties sent a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early January asking him to “urge” the Sri Lankan government to “keep its promises” on self-government and to find a solution to the Tamil question, pending since the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Under that deal, Colombo was to grant autonomy to the Northern and Eastern provinces, to merge them into one, and to make the Tamil language official. The letter contained seven pages calling for the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and significant devolution of powers. Despite their diverse political agendas, signatories coincide in appealing to the international community for the recognition of the agreed rights, and the letter to Modi is yet another example.

“Over time, the Tamil issue has become less important both in India and Tamil Nadu [a southern Indian state with high cultural and historical affinity with Sri Lankan Tamils], as discrimination is now more subtle than in the times of civil war”, says Alan Keenan, senior consultant with the International Crisis Group. The early years of the conflict, when New Delhi sent assistance to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as well as the 1987 events and the dispatch of a peacekeeping force to the island (the IPKF) which eventually came into conflict with the Tigers, and the suicide assassination of then-former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a Tamil fighter, are far behind us.

Despite such loss of prominence, the Indian government continues to approach the Tamil issue as a matter of reputation: “The 1987 treaty is a binding international treaty, and New Delhi feels the pressure to implement it,” notes Keenan. In relation to Sri Lanka and in multilateral bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, India has tried to strike a balance between its traditional stance — which opposes resolutions aimed at one single country— and the realities of foreign and domestic politics, especially the demands of the Tamils in the state of Tamil Nadu.

This was the case with Resolution 46/1 of March 2021, whose goal was to advance accountability for human rights violations and war crimes, in which the Modi government abstained from voting as it sought to anticipate possible geopolitical complications, also in the face of the Tamil Nadu regional election. Years earlier, in March 2013, the Indian government of Pranab Mukherjee —of the United Progressive Alliance— had already voted for another resolution (22/1) after the largest opposition party to Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), withdrew from their joint alliance under the accusation that New Delhi was not doing enough regarding human rights violations against Sri Lankan Tamils.

Looking ahead, it cannot be ruled out that the Tamil issue may be used as an electoral asset by the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, with the intention of gaining support in Tamil Nadu, where his party does not enjoy much electoral strength. Also, the rise of Hindutva —the cultural, religious, and political agenda that defines India as based on Hinduism as its majority faith— and the fact that “some groups are beginning to frame the situation as a discrimination against a large part of Sri Lanka’s Tamils based on the Hindu religion” has the potential to exacerbate tensions in the coming years between the Tamil and Muslim minorities on the one hand and an increasingly anti-Muslim government in Colombo on the other, Keenan concludes.

A clash between Sinhala nationalism and Chinese expansionism

There is little doubt about China’s growing interest in Sri Lanka. Despite having been allies during the post-independence period, China’s influence on Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs has been minimal, being for the most part a recent relationship based on three areas: debt, investment, and trade. Having found itself into successive recurring crises in its balance of payment, Sri Lankan governments have found in Beijing an ally to safeguard its national economy, hard hit by the covid pandemic and the loss of tourism. In the last decade and a half, China has become Sri Lanka’s second largest foreign debtor, financing large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Colombo-Katunayake road connecting the country’s main airport with its largest commercial city, as well as the port of Hambantota and the Mattala airport —Sri Lanka’s second largest.

The rise of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war in 2009 has also gone hand in hand with growing anti-Chinese sentiment. “This is due to Chinese interventionism in Sri Lankan politics, suspicions of predatory financial aid, and the clash between Sinhala nationalism and Chinese expansionism,” explains Shrey Khanna, an analyst at the Takshashila Institution’s Indo-Pacific Studies programme. A case in point was in May 2021, when the Beijing-backed Rajapaksa government enacted a law granting legislative and administrative powers to a non-parliamentary commission in Colombo, sparking suspicion of a deliberate surrender of sovereignty by the government and a mass protest by Sinhala Buddhist monks, one of the government’s core support groups. “Since then, a series of incidents have highlighted the growing clash,” Khanna says.

In an attempt to compensate for the loss of interest in the Sinhala-majority south, Beijing is looking to the Tamil-majority north. Historically, the Asian giant has not been very popular with Sri Lankan Tamils because of its role in the war against the Tigers and the fact that Tamils are a pro-Indian community. But the shrinking scope for investment in the Sinhala south has prompted the Tamils to look for new initiatives. “If China gains influence among the Tamil elite, it could in the long run unbalance the India-Sri Lanka equation, as well as gain geostrategic advantages and military presence in the islands close to India,” Khanna says.

While New Delhi is concerned about China’s approach to what it sees as part of its sphere of influence —Indians have told Colombo so and have succeeded in getting a Chinese renewable energy project in the north of the island cancelled—, Beijing sees the island nation as a crucial part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

One Country, One Law” Sri Lanka

In the past two years, human rights organisations and the United Nations have warned of escalating harassment, surveillance, and arbitrary arrests of Tamils, journalists and activists, as well as “colonisation” policies and occupation of Tamil territory by the government and the military. Melissa Dring, director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, explains that “the level of militarisation remains disproportionately high, with almost 1 soldier for every 2 civilians and people having to cross 6 or 7 checkpoints a day.” Organisations such as the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission also point to draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which since its approval in 1979 has allowed for arbitrary arrests, forced confessions, and torture against anyone suspected of terrorism. Even if recently amended, the law infringes human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, according to the European Parliament.

“The culture of impunity as regards human rights violations has not only allowed perpetrators to escape justice, but also to remain in power,” says Dring. In October 2021, the Sri Lankan authorities dropped charges against former army commander Wasantha Karannagoda, one of 14 people charged with the abduction and murder of 11 Tamils and Muslims between 2008 and 2009. In December, he was appointed governor of the North West province by Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa. “His is just one example of how many of the accused —mostly retired and serving members of the security forces— have been consistently promoted rather than tried,” Dring concludes.

Finally, Sri Lanka’s current president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa —Mahinda’s brother—, surprised on 28 October by appointing Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, a Buddhist monk sentenced to 6 years in prison for inciting inter-communal violence in two anti-Muslim pogroms in June 2014 and March 2018, to head a presidential task force to draft a proposed act known as “One Country, One Law”. No one has much clarity on the commission’s work, beyond suspicion that it is a move to deflect the Sinhala Buddhist constituency’s dissatisfaction with the government onto an embattled minority in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter bombings. In a country still recovering from decades of civil war, the bill risks destabilising the situation and inciting violence.

Meanwhile, since late March, thousands of Sinhala have taken to the streets in anti-government protests against the worst economic crisis the country has faced since independence. “What started as a protest against rising fuel prices [since the start of the covid pandemic, recently aggravated by the war in Ukraine] and the lack of food and medicine has turned into an anti-government protest,” says Haris Zargar, a journalist and researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. In a country highly dependent on tourism, Zargar explains, the economic crisis has resulted in record inflation, a devalued currency, and shortages of basic necessities, prompting the government to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout, as well as to China and India for financial aid.

Protesters are calling for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a controversial figure over his links to human rights violations on the island under his brother Mahinda’s tenure, and now accused of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement. Since 31 March, dozens of protesters have been arrested and injured; the first death was recorded after the police opened fire on the crowd, in parallel to the mass resignation of the cabinet, 41 parliamentarians from the coalition government, and the governor of the central bank.