By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
The 36-year long Sri Lankan civil war over the ethnic issue ended more than ten years ago, guns have been silent and people are going about their businesses without any fear of being killed or maimed. And yet, the roots of the conflict between the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims are still intact.
A conflict could sprout again if peace building is stopped and the underlying issues are not attended to speedily and with the seriousness they deserve, says a recent study entitled: Forgotten Victims of War: A Border Village Study by Marisa de Silva, Nishan Fonseka and Farah Mihlar sponsored by the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust.
The study concentrates on the “border villages” or settlements located on the border between the Tamil-Muslim majority districts and the Sinhalese majority districts in North-East Sri Lanka. Typically, the border areas are ethnically mixed, which make them ideal for research on inter-ethnic relations during conflicts.
The picture that emerges from the monograph is a mixed one. There are problems still to be recognized and attended to even ten years after the end of a brutal war between government forces and Tamil separatist militants.
Referring specifically to the border villages, the study says: “The ethnic divisions and previously identified sense of anger and frustration, in the isolated, marginalized context of these localities (the border villages), could lead to small-scale conflicts and could undoubtedly be mobilized for mob attacks and ethnic violence.”
And yet, there is light at end of the tunnel because the three communities, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, living cheek by jowl in the border villages, do not see things in black and white but in shades of grey.
Their perspectives are not all uniformly negative or uniformly positive. This leaves room for change one way or the other, for the better or for the worse. Thus the study in question gives room for hope as well as despair.
Despite the end of the war, ethnic and religious divides remain strong and insufficiently resolved in some areas and contexts, with the potential to develop into small scale conflicts or fuel existing national conflicts. Peace building and reconciliation are not occurring in an organized and structured manner at the local level, though some communities are working on co-existence. Media and social media are playing a damaging role in strengthening divisions,” the study points out.
Despite great improvement in the situation after the cessation of the fighting, problems of the conflict era persist, the study says.
“State sector services such as hospitals, police, local government, and private sector ones such as banks, continue to operate in Sinhalese, in verbal and written forms, obstructing Tamils from accessing at times very basic services.”
“Many Tamils can converse at some level in Sinhalese but, do not have sufficient language (skills) to, for example, explain complex health problems or read and complete forms.”
“Tamils also feel strongly that they are discriminated against by government and local government authorities in the allocation of resources which they say first go to the Sinhalese and then to Muslims. They also referred to being discriminated against in terms of employment opportunities and having less access to a basic standard of education.”
The problem is acute in the ethnically mixed Trincomalee district. Giving an example, the study says that in Aariyammankeni, most staff in the local administrative offices are Muslims which they felt is unfair as there are four Tamil villages and only one Muslim village in the division.
However, the Tamils were careful not to show prejudice against all Sinhalese. Some differentiated between Sinhalese leaders/politicians and the larger population, the researchers observed.
Nevertheless, the Tamils felt “powerless” to raise the issues especially “Sinhalese colonization” with State help. In Mukathuvaaram for example, before 1984, there were no Sinhalese. They did not own any land there. However, now they have houses, a school, and a Buddhist temple, it was pointed out.
Tamil-Muslim relations were mostly free from conflict, though the Tamils did harbor some grievances against the Muslims. Many Tamils were aware of the anti-Muslim campaigns and some expressed concern and shared solidarity with the Muslims. Tamils saw Muslims as having protected them during the war.
In Neenarkerny, which face a high level of poverty, they referred to the immense charitable support they receive from their neighboring Muslim village.
But there were some comments about Muslims gaining more post-war resources and services but this was not a broadly held opinion. Other felt that Muslims were only concerned with their own economic progress. They also considered Muslims to be uninterested in minority rights for all, the report said.
Tamils of the border villages complained felt that the State is unconcerned about their needs and rights and they no longer have avenues for resistance and protest.
“In the North and East, as the majority are the Tamils, they can protest and demand their rights. However, here the Sinhalese will chase us; they (in reference to the Sinhalese) are the majority, we can’t ask for our rights or protest,” said a Tamil from Soruwil.
Muslims felt that they were in an “unusually difficult position” as they were caught up between both the warring parties, the LTTE and the government military.
“While they attributed most of the violations they suffered to the LTTE, they also explained how they were persecuted and harassed by both the LTTE and military on suspicion of supporting the other. One person from each family was expected to go with the army on rounds and help dig up bunkers and engage in Shramadhana. They would not pay for any of these services. If anyone failed to go, the army would beat up the men in the family. The army often told us not to speak with the Tamils. Similarly if LTTE observed us talking to the army or the Sinhalese, they would beat up the villages. We were crushed by both sides,” said a man from Selvanagar.
Since 2014, and especially after the April 21 2019 Easter Sunday bombings by a bunch of Jihadists, Muslims have been facing Islamophobic campaigns and attacks. But generally after the war ended, a number of Muslims have lost their original lands to the military or to State development projects, including those in archeology.
As for rendering post-war justice, the Tamils are seeking accountability institutions, the Muslims want compensation, and the Sinhalese feel that the destruction of the LTTE is a form of justice to all.
None of the accountability mechanisms which were pledged by the Sri Lankan State at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the Tamils over the years since the end of the war, has been set up or is working, the report points out.
The Independent international Judicial Mechanism on alleged war crimes has not been set up. The Office of Missing Persons started working recently but it is only collecting data on the missing which had been done many times before.
The result is that none of the three communities studied for the report had faith in the State’s ability to provide justice. This has serious implications for inter-ethnic reconciliation as the State is expected to render justice.
In a telling comment on the role of the media, the study says that the national mainstream electronic media and the social media are clearly playing a role in influencing and prejudicing people along ethnic lines.
Shared Good and Bad Times
However, there is a silver lining. Members of all communities said that they had lived together amicably in the past. The study notes that: “ even though tension and division were evident between all three communities, there was no indication of a return to conflict or a new one emerging.”
“The evidence of communities’ ability through common ‘victimhood’ to transcend the association of the ethnic/religious ‘other’ from the perpetrator and reach out to understand their suffering and grievances. In this ability to understand, empathize and feel for the ‘other’ lies tremendous hope for reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka,” the report said.
(The featured image at the top shows Tamil women holding pictures of their missing kin)