13 years too late: As ethnic fault lines blur, what it means for Sri Lankan Tamils
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13 years too late: As ethnic fault lines blur, what it means for Sri Lankan Tamils

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When the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, Yathini was barely 15. Already scarred by the ravages of the war, she grew up waiting for “some sort of closure” for her community – the Sri Lankan Tamils. However, when the day finally came years later, Yathini and most Sri Lankan Tamils like her didn’t know what to make of the recent show of solidarity by the...

When the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, Yathini was barely 15. Already scarred by the ravages of the war, she grew up waiting for “some sort of closure” for her community – the Sri Lankan Tamils. However, when the day finally came years later, Yathini and most Sri Lankan Tamils like her didn’t know what to make of the recent show of solidarity by the majority Sinhalese. Nonetheless, she is relieved to see the change of heart.

“We don’t hold any grudges against the ordinary Sinhalese people. But now that they are offering open support, it definitely feels good,” says the Jaffna resident.

On May 18, protesters offered prayers remembering thousands – including ethnic Tamil civilians – killed in the final stages of the country’s decades-long civil war. As people gathered outside the president’s office in Colombo and prayers of solidarity escaped lips that were sealed for years, the mood was sombre. The clergy from Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities came together to light a clay lamp for those who perished in the civil war which was declared over on May 18, 2009, with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the chief of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), at the hands of Sri Lankan security forces.

People float flowers in the sea in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the civil war.

Ever since, there have been a few private memorials held in secret, but this was the first public event. What made the gathering of the silent mourners peculiar was the ethnic mix it offered, making it the first-ever event in the island nation where the majority ethnic Sinhalese openly memorialised the minority Tamils. It was also the first time in 13 years that Sinhala Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christian communities came together in public and offered prayers for those who lost their lives in the 26-year war.

“We all are humans. We all have the responsibility to commemorate the death of our people. We all have freedom to stay in Sri Lanka. We have freedom to honour the death of our fellow nationals,” Sumeera Gunasekara, a social activist in Colombo, who attended the commemoration ceremony, tells The Federal.

“Just because I am Sinhalese, it was not easy for me to join in. I got a threat from the police against attending the event. I was accused of celebrating LTTE leader Prabhakaran. But the charges are not true. Whether someone is a Sinhalese or a Tamil, everybody has the right to live in this country with dignity and equal rights,” Sumeera adds.

The clergy from Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities came together to light a clay lamp for those who perished in the civil war.

According to Sumeera, attempts to hold similar ceremonies in the past were met with police brutality and administrative crackdown. “All these years, it either happened secretly or it happened only in Jaffna [the region that LTTE occupied through most of the civil war] and the surrounding regions. There used to be a police crackdown on such commemoration events but we did not give up this time.”

What brought the group together is the determination to never allow such a tragedy to any human being in Sri Lanka and ensure no one is denied their rights in the country.

According to Father Jeevithan, a catholic priest in Colombo who also participated in the event, people of all ethnic origins joined together to remember the war victims with a determination to not allow any such tragedy in future.

“We have to fight together for the rights of Sri Lankans. So, the victims of the civil war, including the ethnic Tamils, the Buddhist monks, the Catholic priests and everyone else came together,” he says, adding “it was time somebody publicly acknowledged the pain and suffering the Tamil population has undergone”.

The solidarity glue

Grief, oppression and denial of rights seem to have turned into the adhesive that has brought the divided nation together 13 years after the war ended.

According to many Sinhalese The Federal spoke to, the current economic-political crisis drove a sense of urgency into the people that has resulted in the open show of solidarity. This solidarity, they claim, is not new but existed for some time.

A severe shortage of foreign currency has left embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government unable to pay for essential imports, including fuel, leading to debilitating power cuts lasting up to 13 hours. Ordinary Sri Lankan nationals are also dealing with shortages and rising inflation, after the country steeply devalued its currency last month ahead of talks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan programme.

Asked if the ongoing crisis alone was the reason for the change of heart among the Sinhalese, many admit it was the driving force.

“We realised it a year ago when we were not allowed to remember the Easter blast victims in public. It then struck us. How could remembering the victims of a blast be a problem? So, this year, we commemorated the death of our Tamil brethren,” says Sumeera.

For Tamils, even though late, the show of solidarity on May 18 has brought some solace and created grounds for moving ahead together as a people of one country.

On April 21, 2019, an Easter Sunday, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist suicide bombings. As many as 269 people had died and over 500 were left injured.

For Tamils, even though late, the show of solidarity on May 18 has brought some solace and created grounds for moving ahead together as a people of one country.

Those living in Jaffna and surrounding regions tell The Federal that they noticed the softening of hearts even before the commemoration event.

Grief, oppression and denial of rights seem to have turned into the adhesive that has brought the divided nation together 13 years after the war ended.

“When I visited the protest sites in Colombo where people were demonstrating against the economic crisis, the Sinhalese were very concerned about the Tamils participating in the protest. Irrespective of who was organising the protest, they made sure Tamils were safe,” says Subhabahini, resident of Jaffna who left the country for Tamil Nadu after a crackdown following a protest in April this year.

The Sinhalese themselves came to the bus stand to see her off. “Since I am a Tamil, I know the consequences. Still, I went to the protest site to see what’s happening. By the time I reached there, there was violence and the protesters set ablaze the houses of a few ministers and the police were beating them up with batons. Amidst all this, a few Sinhalese reached out for me, asked if I was fine and escorted me to the bus stand and stayed put at the station till the bus moved,” Subhabahini adds.

For her, reasons behind this show of support do not matter. “I personally felt happy and it was comforting. I don’t know whether they are supporting us because of their political differences with the government or something else. Frankly, it doesn’t matter.”

Many Sri Lankan Tamils in Colombo say that some among the Sinhalese have always been sympathetic and supportive towards them, even during the civil war.

“Sinhalese standing by Tamils is nothing new. Before independence, Tamils and Sinhalese fought the British together. But problems started only after independence. So, we don’t know for how long this empathy and brotherhood would last,” feels Rose Stephanie Justin, an MA graduate from Colombo.

Rose is almost certain that the current economic crisis that has fuelled a sense of solidarity will see a lot of political change in the upcoming elections.

“All these years, the political campaigns and the promises were mostly meant only for the Sinhalese people. The politics centered around appeasing them. Politicians thought this appeasement was all they needed to do. But now the politicians will be forced to talk about other pressing issues including education, employment and the economy,” she says.

Frangistien Praveen, a Sri Lankan Tamil from Colombo who studied in India, feels the country would move from being a Buddhist majoritarian nation towards being a federal state if the new-found unity manages to sustain in the times to come.

“We never thought this remembrance event would be held in full public view. Earlier, when the authorities would randomly pick up a Tamil and beat them up, there would be no voice for them. But recently when a Tamil youth Vivekanandhan in Jaffna was assaulted by the police for commemorating the death of war victims, Sinhalese human rights groups apart from Sinhalese Christians, Muslims and Buddhist condemned it,” says Praveen.

“This gives us hope and it’s a sign of an impending end to ethnic discrimination,” he hopes.

The sceptics

However, many Tamils living outside Sri Lanka doubt how far this show of togetherness will go.

“When we told the Sinhalese people about the damage done to Tamil lives and property during the civil war, all they had to say was that collateral damage was a common occurrence in war. What if after the economic crisis gets over, they turn around and say it is not unusual to stand together during times of crisis,” asks Yathanan, a Sri Lankan refugee living in Tamil Nadu’s Salem refugee camp.

Another Sri Lankan Tamil, who wishes not to be named, believes the change in attitude was limited to Sri Lanka.

“In Australia, Sri Lankan Sinhalese don’t see me as a Sri Lankan national at all. They see me only as a Tamil,” says the woman pursuing her master degree from Australia.

“I was a refugee in Tamil Nadu and soon after the civil war ended, I returned to my motherland. Only then I got back my identity. Until then, my identity was that of a refugee. Sri Lanka is my homeland and I have every right to claim that. But we are discriminated against not just in our country, but also when we are abroad,” she adds.

There are many like her and Yathanan who have already started questioning the outcome of this “unity”.

Many Tamils living outside Sri Lanka doubt how far this show of togetherness will go.

Even though happy with the development, Meera (name changed on request), a Sri Lankan Tamil studying in London, says, “The country is in this crisis because of the divisive politics practised over the years. People should take forward this ‘unity’ politically.”

Yathanan couldn’t agree more. “You can see right in front of your eyes that none of the Tamils have got any ministerial post. We expect both deserving Tamils and Sinhalese to get a chance to join the political stage and solve the crisis together.”

There is, he adds, also a need to bring necessary changes in the Constitution. “Only then this peace and reconciliation process would be complete.”

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