The fear inside us: Confronting Sri Lanka’s past
As Sri Lanka marks 70 years of independence, the nation has a long road ahead in tackling post-war reconciliation.
At first, the tall, brooding silhouette at her doorstep was unrecognisable.
After more than three decades, Sellaiah Manoranjan, an ex-Tamil fighter, returned to a house in Jaffna where he and his family once sought refuge from the Sri Lankan military.
It reminded his Sinhalese host of the time she risked her own safety by offering shelter to this Tamil family in the beginning of the country’s 26-year civil war.
“We’re still alive, aren’t we, my boy?” she asked, patting Manoranjan on his shoulder, as if he was still a teenager. “They harassed us because we supported Tamils. But we protected them anyway.”
Manoranjan has returned with his nephew Jude Ratnam, a filmmaker who is retracing his uncle’s experiences to get closer to understanding not only the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, but also the infighting and power struggle within Tamil separatist groups that characterised their quest for a separate homeland.
A history of discrimination
After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka became embroiled in a struggle between the Sinhalese majority ethnic group and the minority Tamils.
Despite the British Raj over Sri Lanka being largely coloured by the divide-and-rule strategy, figures from the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka were appointed to high-ranking civil services jobs and played an important role in the governance of the island.
But in 1948, administrative power fell into the hands of the Sinhalese, who began an onslaught of legislative discrimination against the Tamil population.
The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 denied citizenship to Sri Lankans of Indian descent (Tamils were largely of Indian descent). Then, in 1956, the Sinhala Only Act made Sinhalese the only official language of Sri Lanka. In the 1970s, importing Tamil language books, magazines and films from the Tamil cultural hub of Tamil Nadu in India, was also outlawed.
“Once political parties dominated by the Sinhalese majority got entrenched, they pushed through certain policies that had an effect on the everyday life of Tamils and made them feel marginalised,” said Nira Wickramasinghe, professor of modern South Asian studies at Leiden University.
“This was seen as an affront to the idea of equal citizenship and created a situation that radicalised the youth and led to a feeling of discontent that was channelled into anti-state movements,” she told Al Jazeera.
Once political parties dominated by the Sinhalese majority got entrenched, they pushed through certain policies that had an effect on the everyday life of Tamils and made them feel marginalised.
Calls for the right to Tamil self-determination, reflected in the 1977 parliamentary elections, were brushed aside when the Sri Lankan government responded with an amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, prohibiting peaceful advocacy of independence.
Four years later, in 1981, an irreversible blow to Tamil culture and history at the hands of an organised Sinhalese mob saw the Jaffna library set on fire. Over 95,000 Tamil historical texts and manuscripts were burned to ashes.
Sri Lanka’s Black July
In July 1983, a group of Tamil fighters ambushed a contingent of the Sri Lankan military, killing 13 soldiers. The incident sparked the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, and a bloody civil war broke out that left more than 100,000 dead and around 800,000 displaced.
“That night in July 1983, the whole capital was set on fire,” recalls Ratnam, referring to what is widely remembered in Sri Lankan history as “Black July”.
When the dust settled, thousands of Tamils had been displaced from their homes and their businesses uprooted. Many Tamils were forced to migrate to the northern parts of the country, mainly to the city of Jaffna.
Just as we were arriving in the north of the country, the Tamil fighters began to organise themselves to take up arms. The Tamil guerrillas' fight for an independent state began.
Ratnam was still a child when they fled the violence, but he remembers his father walking helplessly up and down the platform as his family boarded the train from Colombo to Jaffna.
“That picture is deeply etched into my memory,” he said. “That night, I didn’t realise we were fleeing Colombo as refugees. We went to the north where the majority of Tamils were already living.”
“Just as we were arriving in the north of the country, the Tamil fighters began to organise themselves to take up arms. The Tamil guerrillas’ fight for an independent state began,” Ratnam said.
A rebellion divided
Under the banner of Tamil Eelam, the struggle for a separate homeland for the Tamils, the resistance fractured before it could present itself to be a viable opposition for the state.
“All the names I heard as a child, Tigers, TELO, PLOTE, EPDP, EPRLF, EROS, were those of the various Tamil militant groups,” Ratnam said. “I was proud of those names.”
Pride soon turned into fear as infighting started within the group.
“They [Tamil Tigers] were killing all those who opposed them, one by one,” said Manoranjan, who was a member of the National Liberation Front of Tamileelam (NLFT). It was a “small political group” that stood for “socialist revolution” and a group that inevitably was overshadowed by the more violent and menacing Tigers.
“In the early 1980s, you had a streamlining of the [Tamil resistance] groups. The Tigers really consolidated their hegemony as the dominant group and physically eliminated most of its rivals,” Wickramasinghe told Al Jazeera.
“The TT consolidated its place quite violently. There wasn’t a rallying around in an organic way, it was a battleground for who would become the representative of this movement,” she said.
The struggle for Tamil Eelam was quashed in 2009, when, after weeks of intense fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the chief Tamil leader was shot and killed by security forces.
The Tigers really consolidated their hegemony as the dominant group and physically eliminated most of its rivals.
‘The fear is ready to come back’
Almost nine years after the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka is still grappling with its recent past. Many challenges remain unresolved and many of the physical, emotional and psychological wounds of war remain unhealed.
According to Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, successive governments have failed to properly address issues raised by the conflict.
“Immediately after the war, the government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa was unwilling to address concerns around violations of laws of war,” she said.
“Those seeking accountability and answers were under severe pressure with the government cracking down on freedom of expression. Those suspected of any connection or sympathy with the Tamil Tigers were subjected to arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and severe torture, including sexual abuse, in custody,” Ganguly told Al Jazeera.
In March 2017, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Rights Council that “the consistent failure to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish serious crimes appears to reflect a broader reluctance or fear to take action against members of the security forces.”
The current government stresses it has indeed been involved in efforts to address some of the concerns regarding its role in the civil war. In that light, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena appears to contradict key findings from a UN investigation into the country’s civil war, released in September 2015.
“Today, in our country, we’re asked to move forward, forgetting the past,” said Ratnam.
“Almost all traces of the war have been wiped out. Everyone wants to believe the country will develop, whatever the means. We are asked to deny our identities in order to move forward. But I know that that fear, which is buried deep inside us is ready to come back to the surface and it could happen at any moment.”