Tuesday, January 10, 2006

People Power

People Power
By Rajesh Suntharamoorthy

The nature of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict is changing and the armed forces stationed in the north of the country are the first to recognise it. Gone are the days when militant groups were battling out against the Sri Lanka armed forces for control of the nine districts that make up the Tamil Homeland. The conflict is increasingly turning into a clash between the oppressed and the occupiers. Tamil civilians from school children to senior citizens are falling victims to the atrocities of the armed forces. In return soldiers are being hit with sticks; stones; knives; swords; mines and grenades by various people’s forces.

For the past 50 years, successive governments have been unsuccessfully trying to portray the ethnic conflict on the island of Sri Lanka as a ‘terrorist problem’. Differences between the island’s majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities emerged in the early 50s when SWRD Bandaranaika heading the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) exploited the Sinhala-Buddhists position as a permanent majority, by using discriminatory policies against the Tamils as vote winners. Victory for the SLFP in the 1956 elections and the following implementation of ‘Sinhala Only’ law, set in motion a prolonged at times violent campaign by the Tamil speaking people, for the establishment of a separate state comprising of the North-East region, which was known as the Tamil Kingdom, prior to British colonisation in the 19th century.

The Tamil struggle has taken many forms throughout its history. What began as peaceful agitations against blatant discriminatory policies such as ‘Sinhala Only’ and prominence to Buddhism quickly turned to armed militancy against an oppressive state when Tamil youth were denied the right to higher education with the introduction of the controversial ‘Standardisation’ policy in the early 70s. Although several groups of students sprung up to protect the Tamil people, many were later bought out by successive Sri Lankan governments as well as the Indians during the 80s. Meanwhile the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged on the scene as the sole representatives of the Tamil people with their high discipline, motivation and strong minded leadership.

During the 80s and 90s the LTTE were involved in three prolonged campaigns [Eelam Wars I, II and III] against the Sri Lankan and Indian armed forces. During all three of the conflicts a range of tactics including guerrilla attacks, bomb blasts and sophisticated military manoeuvres were employed by the LTTE to liberate the Tamil areas from the Sri Lankan armed forces. Although the LTTE comprised of Tamil civilians and was operating with the whole hearted support and funding from the wider Tamil community, there has always been a distinction that could be drawn between the trained LTTE carders who were carrying out attacks and the civilian Tamil population.

The dawn of a new millennium witnessed the LTTE declaring unilateral cease fire, which was followed by the signing of a Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) between the LTTE and the then Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) in 2001. Over the following two and a half years, several rounds of peace talks were held across the capitals of the world. Frustrated with the lack of progress in the lack of measures taken to improve the day to day livelihoods of the Tamil people, particularly the right to return for the over 300 000 Tamil civilians living as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the Tamil homeland, while the Sri Lanka armed forces continued to occupy their homes under the pretext of High Security Zones (HSZ), the LTTE decided to pause further talks until the outcomes of previous talks were fully implemented. At the wake of 2006, a whole four years after the signing of the CFA over 300 000 Tamils continue to live in cattle sheds as IDPs, while the military continues to occupy their homes contrary to the CFA and agreements forged during six rounds of peace talks.

Boxing Day 2005, witnessed one of the greatest natural tragedies to have hit the modern world, when the South Asian Tsunami struck the costal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. The northern, eastern and southern coasts of Sri Lanka were devastated as over 30 000 people were killed; several thousand were injured and left homeless. Along with the tragedy, came a challenge and a test for both the Sinhala and Tamils on the island. While both the Sinhala soldiers and Tamil Freedom Fighters worked hand in hand during the initial search and rescue operations, old divisions and bitterness emerged in the later days as international aid and diplomats began to pore into the devastated area. Firstly the United Nations Secretary General was prevented by the GoSL from visiting LTTE administrated areas hit hard by the Tsunami. Later a Joint Mechanism proposed by the Royal Norwegian Government for the equitable distribution of international aid across the Tamil Homeland, was left in limbo as the extremist in the South filed court cases and Buddhist extremists went on fast till death campaigns. As a result, more than a year after the tragedy, almost all the Tamil victims are living in temporary shelters constructed by Non Governmental Organisations such as the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation. The fiasco that followed the tragedy has left many Tamils questioning the wisdom of expecting any peaceful devolution of political power from those who are not even willing to share international aid money in the aftermath of an unprecedented tragedy.

November 2006 was a month of critical decisions for both the Sinhala and Tamil people. For the Sinhala it was a choice between two different Sinhala-Buddhist men for the position of the sixth President of Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa representing the SLFP was backed by the Marxist Sinhala nationalist JVP, Buddhist extremist JHU and paramilitary groups such as the EPDP and the Karuna Group. His main challenger Ranil Wickramasinhga representing the UNP was backed by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and a number of Upcountry Tamil parties. For the Tamils on the other hand, the choice was simply between voting and not voting. Having overwhelmingly voted for self determination in 1977, they had spent the past 23 years waiting in vein. Again in 1994 the Tamil people voted overwhelmingly for the ‘queen of peace’ Chandrika Bandaranaika Kumaratunga and fled in dismay as her forces invaded Jaffna, murdered over 15 000 civilians and 1000s more went missing and later ended up in mass graves. ‘It is normal for one of the two candidates to appear to be pro-peace. However, at the end of the day, neither one will pull back the occupying forces, neither will put an end to the killing of civilians and neither will allow us to exercise our right to self determination,’ summed up a teacher from Jaffna Town on the run up to the elections.

On November 17 both the communities made their choices visible. Over 4.5 million Sinhala-Buddhists voted for the hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa. Meanwhile the Tamils decided to boycott the election in their masses. The Jaffna district had a voter turnout of less than 1% despite the presence of over 40 000 Sinhala occupation soldiers in the district. It was a similar story across the Tamil Homeland. Both the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils voted for the UNP candidate. However, with the backing of an overwhelming majority of the Sinhala-Buddhists, around 75% of the total, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President.

Revitalised by the election victory of their man, the Sinhala army embarked on a systematic campaign to terrorise and subjugate the Tamil people under their occupation. Since November 17 over 50 innocent Tamil civilians have been murdered. Several more have been abducted by the armed forces. Men and women, young and old have been targeted equally. The killing spree which began with the targeted assassination of Tamil nationalists, quickly spread to cover the entire Tamil community. Miss Tharsini, 20 years old from Pungudutheevu, Jaffna was gang raped and murdered. A family of three including a four years old child were burnt to death in Meesalai, Mannar. Two sisters were murdered in their sleep in Batticaloa while the Member of Parliament for the same was shot to death in a church during Midnight Mass. Five students were shot to death, ‘execution style’ in Trincomalee. Apart from the above mentioned high profile incidents, the Tamil community began to re-experience death and destruction on a daily basis.

Hideous crimes against Tamil civilians by the Sinhala occupation forces are nothing new. Since 1956 when hostilities began, over 60 000 Tamils have been systematically murdered. What is new is the response of the Tamil people to these atrocities. The people [realising that the hands of the LTTE are tied back by the CFA and the international community] are taking matters into their own hands. They had issued leaflets and pasted posters across the Tamil Homeland, calling on the occupation forces to ‘go home immediately’ and warning of ‘serious consequences’ in the face of continuing atrocities committed by the Sinhala soldiers. Furthermore they have backed up words with actions. The gang rape and murder of Miss Tharsini was responded to with a mine attack on the Sri Lanka Navy, who had been implicated with the horrendous crime. Mine attack was also the response to the burning to death of Tamils in Mannar. Meanwhile, the people have continued to hurdle sticks, stones and grenades at the occupying forces in response to atrocities.

Many international diplomats have found it hard to accept the hands on approach the Tamil people are taking with regards to their own security. The diplomats who would rather watch genocide pass by in silence, seem far too shocked and distressed by the death of Sinhala occupation soldiers. Time and time again the government of Sri Lanka has blamed the LTTE for attacks carried out against the occupation forces. Meanwhile the Tamil civilians are insistent that the attacks that are being carried out in response to specific atrocities would stop, as soon as the atrocities are brought to an end. The ball is clearly in the Sinhala soldiers' court. Stop raping Tamil girls. Stop Killing Tamil civilians. Stop abducting Tamil youths. Automatically there will be an end to attack on armed forces.