Sri Lanka, where Tamils fear to tread

After three decades of brutal civil war followed by an authoritarian, kleptocratic regime, the Indian Ocean island’s fragile detente is under threat again.

When he first approaches, Muttiah’s* eyes are as hard as the few granite and cement headstones left at the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cemetery in Mulankavil in northwest Sri Lanka.

They soften during our conversation. The 53-year-old talks about his two dead brothers. The elder was killed during a flare-up in the 1990s of the civil war that went on on for more than three decades. The younger is believed to have died in 2008 as the Sri Lankan military escalated its offensives against the Tigers, until their eventual defeat in May 2009.

Both were Tigers, but only one of their bodies lies in the cemetery. Muttiah’s family does not know where the other is, but there is a grave for each brother in the burial ground, which was desecrated by the Sri Lankan military after it recaptured the area from the Tigers in the final throes of the conflict.

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Muttiah’s eyes melt when he talks about his brothers having died in vain. The tears catch in their haunted outer corners: “I am not free,” he says. “I am not even free to commemorate my brothers without fear. This [grass] carpet road [to enter the cemetery, which the government provided] is nice, but I would prefer to be able to come here only with a bullock cart if it meant I was not told what to do.”

An inconvenient past

This is only the third year since the end of the war that Muttiah, and Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, have been allowed to commemorate Maaveerar Naal (the Tigers’ “heroes’ day”) on 27 November. Lieutenant Shankar (Sathiyanathan, alias Suresh) is said to have been the first Tiger cadre to die in combat on that day at 6.05pm in 1982.

The war ended on 18 May 2009, orchestrated with brutal, apparently criminal efficiency by former president (and current disputed Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa. Soon after, he outlawed these commemorations. Army bases were built on former Tiger cemeteries in an area the Tigers had long controlled, while others were ploughed through and destroyed, such as the nearby Vanni cemetery.

There, Prakash* remembers the army “breaking tombstones and removing the gravel from the graves and dumping them on the road. You could still see the hair and the bones of the dead among the gravel,” he says.

It was only a year after the coalition government was voted into power in 2015 that the commemorations were allowed again.

Tamil Sri Lankans returned to the graves of their family members, cleared them away, festooned the area with the flags of red (for revolution) and yellow (for equality), and lit lamps at exactly 6.05pm. This year, as with others, old men and women gathered to weep and wail, to hug framed photos of their sons and daughters, to remember them with children or siblings too young to know dead parents, aunts and uncles.

But this fragile detente is under threat again. Many believe Rajapaksa could be making a return to power. With him returns the possibility of an authoritarian Sinhalese ethno-nationalism that had previously silenced and suppressed the Tamil voices speaking of the trauma and violence they endured during the war, especially at its end.

A government in tatters

On 26 October, President Maithripala Sirisena, of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), sacked former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, of the United National Party (UNP) and replaced him with Rajapaksa – a move universally acknowledged as unconstitutional by various law experts and politicians within Sri Lanka, as well as international governments and aid organisations.

The move triggered a stasis within Sri Lanka’s government. Wickremesinghe’s UNP are the senior members of the coalition. The UNP, together with smaller parties, including the Tamil National Alliance and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, have passed two votes of no confidence against Rajapaksa’s purported new Cabinet and government.

Rajapaksa was unable to get a majority in the 224-member Parliament, leading to Sirisena dissolving it – a move declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

On 8 December, Sirisena admitted to Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper that Rajapaksa had been trying to bribe parliamentarians to cross over with incentives worth millions of Sri Lankan rupees: “I heard some bargained themselves for sums as high as Rs 500 million. Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa could not gather the majority because of such high price tags quoted by the MPs, if not for that, he could have gotten the majority,” said Sirisena.

“If Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa could show the majority of 113, this problem would not have been dragged for one and [a] half months, and there won’t be any political crisis,” Sirisena said, in dogged denial of his own part in a debacle that has seen tourism decline and the Rupee plummet against the US dollar.

The allegations of bribery have been accompanied by farcical scenes in Parliament, including on 16 November, when Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had to be escorted into the house behind a phalanx of police, who were subsequently pelted with chilli powder, chairs and copies of Sri Lanka’s Constitution by Rajapaksa’s supporters. An investigation into whether some MPs wielded knives in parliament is ongoing.

But there are suggestions that Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions are holding firm against what is, essentially, a coup. For now.

MPs have not crossed the floor for cash. The Supreme Court has ruled that Rajapaksa’s Cabinet cannot authorise the spending of state funds – a decision the former president has asked to be reviewed, which will be heard on 12 December. The court has also nullified Sirisena’s executive order for snap elections to be held in January.

The police and the army have not acted with any obvious partisanship, despite slimming down Wickremesinghe’s security detail. The erstwhile Prime Minister has been holed up in his official residence, Temple Trees, surrounded by a wall of supporters, including Buddhist monks, to ensure he is not forcibly removed by Rajapaksa supporters, the military or the police. And, importantly, pro-Rajapaksa mobs have not turned the streets violent, although they quickly gained control of state-owned media buildings soon after 26 October.

Nowhere to turn

People in Sri Lanka’s north are ambivalent about the political shenanigans in Colombo. For them, whoever retains power ultimately represents the interests of the island’s Sinhala majority, who show little regard for the civil liberties and lives of its Tamil minority. “Whether its Ranil of Mahinda, it doesn’t matter to us, they are two sides of the same roti,” says Gaiathree*, who runs a small informal shop near Mulankavil.

Like so many inhabitants of the rural north outside Jaffna, Gaiathree was displaced in the final push of the conflict. His relatives were also killed. As the army clawed back territory in the north, moving from west to east, hundreds of thousands of people who had been living in what was effectively a Tamil state, with its own police, judiciary and civil service, found themselves set upon.

The heavy shelling forced civilians to retreat east with the Tigers, who used the non-combatants as human shields, and, towards the end, forcibly conscripted adult and child soldiers into bearing arms for them. There is documented evidence that the Sri Lankan military contravened the Geneva Convention and shelled civilians in areas they had declared “no-fire zones”, while also targeting temporary hospitals set up during the retreat. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s brother, was defence minister at the time of war’s end.

In May 2009, at the very end, with the Tigers on the verge of annihilation, more than 100 000 people were trapped at Mullaitivu, on a small strip of land about 3km long between Nandikadal Lagoon and the Bay of Bengal. They were shelled. People died. While surrendering and swimming across the lagoon towards the army, they were allegedly shot at by both sides of the conflict.

The United Nations conservatively estimates that 40 000 people were killed by the Sri Lankan army in its final push. Thousands of others were “disappeared” as the military went around the refugee camps they set up, rooting out suspected Tigers. Civilians were incarcerated in refugee camps for months, in some cases more than a year, before being allowed to go home. Some suspected Tigers were sent to “re-education camps” before being released much later.

Others were never heard of again.

‘Something more than nothing’

Earlier this year, during construction work in Mannar, a seaside town on Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, the country’s largest mass grave to date was discovered. The remains of 266 people were unearthed, which, it was recently confirmed, would be sent to the US for forensic investigation, something human rights lawyers suggest would never have happened if Rajapaksa were in power.

Prakash was clearing the memorial of his eldest son, a Tiger cadre, who was killed in the late 1990s, at Vanni cemetery. The last time he saw his two youngest sons was on 16 May 2009, two days before the war officially ended.

“My sons were not Tigers, they were just civilians. I remember speaking to them on the bridge near Nandikadal. They were going to look for food. I never saw them again,” he says, still visibly affected by the memory.

“How am I supposed to get on with my life? What about their mother? How are we supposed to feel like citizens with rights in this country if this government can’t even tell me what they did to our children?” he says.

Despite the disillusioned indifference among people in the north about the possible change of government, it is the silence around these questions that has human rights workers in Sri Lanka most concerned about Rajapaksa’s possible return to power.

A human rights worker in Colombo points to the incremental gains in transitional justice that have been made since Rajapaksa lost power in 2015. In 2016, the government agreed to issue certificates of absence to the relatives of more than 65 000 people who went missing during the civil war and the Marxist insurgency in the south in the early 1980s. An office of missing persons was also set up in 2016, but its work has been curtailed by arguments over filling vacancies and a continued objection to foreign assistance. 

“This may not appear much, but it is something more than nothing, which is what we had under Rajapaksa, and will probably return to if he were to return,” says the human rights worker.

A return to oppression

The political upheaval in Colombo was felt by mourners attempting to commemorate fallen Tigers during their “heroes day” celebrations. The Tamil Guardian newspaper reported that suspected state intelligence officers prevented villagers in Kudathanai in Jaffna district from observing the day.

According to the newspaper, they handed out a 2011 gazette notification that Rajapaksa signed while president, which prevented the commemoration. They also issued a verbal warning that with Rajapaksa “returning as prime minister”, the law would be strictly enforced.

Death and disappearance have been commonplace throughout Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history. Journalists have been abducted or killed, and dissidents and the spectre of the “white van”, which enforces these human rights violations, is conclusively not apocryphal.

Rajapaksa, the authoritarian ethno-nationalist populist, is said to have mastered these arts after ending the war and casting himself as the saviour of Sri Lanka. His posters line the streets of towns across the country as he seeks to reassert his presence – and memories of being responsible for ending the war – in the public’s imagination.

With his brothers, sons and a broader familial network stretching across the political and business sphere, he has also perfected the kind of “big man” kleptocratic tendencies that confirmed him as a forerunner of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and many others whose instincts remain oppressive and anti-progressive.

Whether he will be allowed to return to power, however, remains in the hands of the people and institutions of a beautiful, scarred island that would appear to deserve so much more.

*Names have been changed to protect those who spoke to New Frame. Although this ensures the safety of the living, it regrettably maintains the veil of silence cast over those who died or disappeared. One day, it is to be hoped, they will cease to be nameless in public.

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