Go Gota Gone but Sri Lankan Tamils still undecided what to make of it

Go Gota Gone but Sri Lankan Tamils still undecided what to make of it

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The cataclysmic events in Sri Lanka that led to the overthrow of the powerful Rajapaksas and the speed with which the drama unfolded in the past few weeks have stunned the world. Determined to bring down the “corrupt regime” and usher in an economic and political change, the protesters forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the island nation with people taking over the...

The cataclysmic events in Sri Lanka that led to the overthrow of the powerful Rajapaksas and the speed with which the drama unfolded in the past few weeks have stunned the world. Determined to bring down the “corrupt regime” and usher in an economic and political change, the protesters forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the island nation with people taking over the colonial-era structure that served as the President’s House.

Social media has been flooded with photos and videos of protesters pouring into the halls and bedrooms of the presidential palace, rifling through the possessions of its absconding owners, lying on the kingly couches, working out in the private gym, splashing into the pool and watching the palace takeover on television from inside the palace itself. The protesters, mostly comprising the country’s dominant Sinhalese community, smiled triumphantly at the press cameras and celebrated the takeover. The president, of course, was not home, having fled the night before.

But in all this, how do the Tamils, especially those who had to flee the country during the civil war, see the denouement that visited the Rajapaksas, their bêtes noires?

Sri Lanka protests
Protesters inside former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence. Photo: Twitter

Ethnic Tamils, who were forced to leave the country during the 26-year civil war in which more than 1 lakh people were killed and millions of Sri Lankans – mostly minority Tamils – were displaced, have mixed feelings about the events in Sri Lanka. The predominant reaction of the diaspora, however, has been one of celebration. “There was delight and catharsis simultaneously,” Dr Cheran Rudramoorthy, associate professor at University of Windsor, Canada, tells The Federal.

Another academician, Prof Keetha Poncalan, who teaches at the University of Salisbury, Maryland, US, says the feeling was mixed. “Some were happy and argued this was karma for what the South [dominated by Sinhalese] did to the Tamils. Some Sri Lankan Muslims also express similar views. Since many have families back in Sri Lanka, they were nervous and wanted the crisis to be resolved soon.”

The protests witnessed at Galle Face in Colombo from March onwards have been predominantly led by the majority Sinhalese, with some participation of minorities, notably Muslims, who have been the most recent victims of the majoritarian politics pursued by the Rajapaksas.

Sense of detachment and distancing

The fact that Tamils were not visible in the protests in big numbers has come as a surprise to many. According to observers, even the sporadic protests in the North and Eastern provinces, dominated by ethnic minorities, were organised by Sinhalese students studying in the universities there.

Sri Lanka protests
Protesters watch television inside the President’s House. Photo: Twitter

The aspect was surprising considering the anger palpable among the diaspora against the Rajapaksas, in particular, and the Sinhala state in general, over the way Tamil civilians were treated during the last phase of the war. It is also a fact that the economic crisis hit all communities equally. So, did the Tamils in large numbers distance themselves from the protests?

“One explanation could be the fact that the northern Tamil society is more middle class than the southern Sinhalese provinces. There is a remittance economy in Jaffna and other Tamil districts, with diaspora contributions insulating their kith and kin from the impact of the skyrocketing inflation,” says Dr Baheerathan Amirthalingam, a London-based physician and son of assassinated Tamil United Liberation Front stalwart Appapillai Amirthalingam.

“My theory is that the Tamils did not feel the same level of pain. They were used to all sorts of hardships. So, the economic crisis had varying levels of impact in the North and the South,” Poncalan tells The Federal.

Cheran Rudramoorthy, however, takes a slightly different view and says that there were instances of Tamil participation in the protests. Rudramoorthy says during the protests there were instances where the victims of the genocide were remembered, this included murdered Tamil journalists. “These acts were not merely symbolic in nature but reflect a deeper sense of solidarity among the new generation of Sinhalese. It needs to be encouraged, shared and appreciated. These are incremental changes and take time,” Cheran adds.

Author, poet and a retired professor of Tamil, MA Nuhman, who lives in Kandy, says that the ethnic minorities participated in the Colombo protests, though elsewhere in the North and East of the island nation, the protests were not seen on the same scale.

Many Tamils who stayed away from the protests say what they have gone through has been much worse.

“We have seen much worse – be it power shutdown, food shortages or fuel scarcity – we have seen it all,” was the typical response heard during the protests. “You brought them [the Rajapaksas] in, now you reap the harvest,” was another response.

The fall of Gota and celebrations

Even the most diehard opponent and critic of the Rajapaksas would not have anticipated the way the public protests climaxed with the fall from grace of Mahinda Rajapakasa and the inglorious flight of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the island nation.

Although the Tamil society in Sri Lanka has a great deal of distrust towards the Sinhala political establishment in general, there has been a greater aversion for the Rajapaksas, especially Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Tamil social media users openly celebrated the inglorious treatment of Gotabaya, which saw the takeover of his residence and protesters forcing him to flee.

With the recent development in the backdrop many are asking is there a realisation among the Tamils, and among the Tamil diaspora that the protests may have opened a window, even if a small one, for a national reconciliation?

The protests in Colombo were, of course, mainly a Sinhala-dominated affair but there was a sprinkling of minorities, especially Muslims, on some days.

“For the first time, Sri Lanka witnessed a great sense of ethnic solidarity at the ‘Gotagogama’. This was encouraging. I would say the potential was there. This would have evaporated after the violent turn of the aragalaya (the Sinhala word for struggle) on July 9,” Poncalan says.

Some protest leaders also spoke to the media, in the early days, about the possibility of the protests opening a new chapter in the relations between various ethnicities in the island nation.

Dr Bagheerathan, however, counters this narrative of hope saying there is no widespread hope for reconciliation among the diaspora. “In fact, the diaspora members are not directly hit by the economic hardships in Sri Lanka, so the feeling was ‘Let the Sinhalese face the music,’” he says.

Also, the sense of being wronged hasn’t gone away. Tamils of the North felt that the protesters in Colombo were treated with kid gloves by the Sri Lankan security establishment. They believe that if similar protests were held in the Tamil-speaking regions of the country, the attitude of the security agencies would have been different.

Sri Lanka protests
Protesters in Sri Lanka laid siege at the President’s House. Photo: Twitter

Cheran, however, says that in the diaspora, several Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim activists were part of virtual organising of events. “The Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDSL), an organisation of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, had contributed immensely,” he adds.

Hope for justice rekindled

There is hope among the diaspora Tamils that the ouster of Gotabaya Rajapaksa will help bring him to trial for war crimes – a demand Tamils have raised since the end of the ethnic conflict in 2009.

The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution only last year authorising its commissioner Michelle Bachelet to collect evidence of crimes against humanity committed during the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka. The process might get a boost now with the removal of diplomatic immunity so far enjoyed by Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka protests
Tamils with images of family members who vanished during the Sri Lanka civil war, at a protest in the north in Jaffna in August 2013. Photo: Reuters

But whether the new President, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who owes his election to the support extended by Rajapaksas, would cooperate with UNHRC remains to be seen.

The Rajapaksas may have been ousted but whether the larger political grievances that lay behind the ethnic conflict would now be addressed in any meaningful way by the Wickramasinghe administration remains to be seen.

The road to justice for Sri Lankan Tamils looks longer than the road to the economic recovery of the island nation.

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