A vote for democracy
In the days leading up to the Sri Lankan 2015 presidential election I travelled between the southern capital city of Colombo and Jaffna, the ‘Tamil capital’, in the island’s north. As one of the Tamil diaspora, I was familiar with the widespread criticisms of President Mahinda Rajapaksa—a man who likened himself as a mythological king and, alongside his brothers and son, kept an authoritarian rule over a country re-building after a decades-long civil war. The civil war is often understood as an ethnic conflict between a Sinhala majority population and an armed Tamil secessionist movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who effectively ran a de-facto state in the island’s North and East from the mid 1980s until their ultimate defeat by Sri Lankan Forces in May 2009.
On election day I rode my bicycle to the iconic Jaffna Library to read the newspapers, negotiating the road blocks and the exceptional police presence anticipating trouble. Here I learned that the ‘international Tamil diaspora’ were urging Tamils to abstain from voting. Professor R Sri Ranjan, a spokesperson for the International Council of Eelam Tamils (ICET), claimed neither the ruling president Mahinda Rajapaksa, representing the United People’s Freedom Alliance, or his significant challenger, the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena for the United Democratic Front, would bring Tamils positive change. He argued that neither presidential candidate had specifically addressed Tamil concerns or had indicated they would withdraw the military presence from the North and East. It was the professor’s belief that the election only concerned the ‘Sinhala Nation’ and was impervious to issues of Tamil self-determination, arguing that:
A country is beautiful when all people can live in harmony with equal rights where human rights are respected. These governments, whoever it is, whatever party it is, has destroyed the country. The fundamental rights of self-determination of all the people should be respected and the constitution of Sri Lanka gives no space for it (Sri Ranjan 2015).
As a representative of both Tamils in the diaspora and in Sr Lanka, Sri Ranjan called for a constitutional change to recognise both the Tamil Nation and Sinhala Nation as equal partners. Despite the decision of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to support the common opposition, Sri Ranjan urged Tamils not to be used as a ‘bargaining chip’ in majority politics and to instead boycott the vote.
My friend, the filmmaker and academic, Sivamohan Sumathy vigorously disagreed with such calls to boycott, arguing that the election had opened up spaces for minority voices in the politics of the Sinhala majority state. Addressing the possibility of de-militarisation she claimed that the presidential election gave Tamil voters of the North ‘hope and a confidence in our own strength to bring about change.’ Speaking specifically about the people of the North and East—the lifeblood of the Tamil Nation—she cautioned that this change would not occur overnight, but that it was necessary for Tamil and Muslim communities to better conceive their own lives and agendas. Rather than self-determination Sumathy advocated for a politics of cohesion and belonging, insisting that it would be ‘suicidal for the Tamil voter to not vote, to engage in a politics of isolationism’ (Sumathy 2014). To make her case she drew attention to the disjunction between the hardline separatist politics of Tamil nationalists, such as Sri Ranjan, and the realities that these positions have failed to address:
The daily lives of people are racked by unemployment, a dearth of skilled labour, caste discrimination persisting at many levels, in white collar as well as working class sectors. Education, housing, farming, the persistence of problems facing the fishing people, the right to the sea, access to government bodies, safeguards for farmers etc. The resettled do not have the capital to start up life anew and they go into debt in a major way (Sumathy 2014).
The election thus presented Tamils with an opportunity to leverage their concerns beyond nationalist agendas of separatist politics and to participate in a broader critique of the Rajapaksa regime—indeed several commentators regarded the Tamil voter as being largely anti-Mahinda rather than pro-Maithripala (Srinivasan 2015). So, it stands to reason that by pursuing political alliances rather than separatist politics Tamils would benefit by building affinities and strategies with other minorities whose communities are beset with similar problems. Such a ‘movement of minorities’ could potentially campaign for coherent reforms to be delivered across the country.
Another high profile commentator was the Sri Lankan born popstar MIA who Tweeted:
The celebrity appeared to echo the urgings of Sri Ranjan when she announced earlier that if she were in Sri Lanka she ‘wouldn’t vote at all to endorse war crimes’ (MIAuniverse 2015). Whilst many are dismissive of MIA’s opinions, I raise her as a self-styled voice of a generation—a poster girl for transnational justice—who has championed the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils as a cause célèbre. Her comments led me to dwell on the interplay of justice and democracy.
Professor Sri Ranjan argued that since neither of the major parties mentioned justice in their election manifestos there was effectively nothing for people of the Tamil Nation to vote for, especially as they were effectively being colonised and made dependent according to the march of ‘Sinhalisation’ across the island (Sri Ranjan 2015). By comparison, Sumathy’s campaign presses for community participation in a nation-wide democratic process. It is an an option only made available for Tamils of the North and East after the defeat of the LTTE who forcefully discouraged and prevented voting in the past.
Does participation equate to empowerment, and does empowerment necessarily imply justice? In the aftermath of the civil war the perpetrators of injustice are understood as being amongst the Sinhala state and the Tamil militants. Those made subject to this violence are not only Tamil and Sinhala-idenitfying civilians, but as now widely acknowledged Muslims, Up-country or Malaiyaka Tamils and others caught in the crossfire of the warring factions. Perhaps what is most significant about Sumathy’s emphasis on empowerment through participation is that minorities are not simply rendered victims of dominant political machinations. Rather they are at the forefront, articulating their needs and lobbying the government to implement their recommendations, independent of the international diaspora’s will. Ideally these movements would not be expressions of Tamil or other nationalisms and would arise from intercultural community organisation and the desire to address common injustices as equals.
The mourning after
Like many others I awoke on the morning after the election to learn that Mahinda Rajapaksa had vacated Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official residence in Colombo, during the night. The news of his defeat was celebrated amongst my circle of friends, both Tamil and Sinhala. The incoming president Maithripala Sirisena won on a mandate that promised a program of political reforms within one hundred days of election, which would be followed by a general election. Many whom I encountered seemed circumspect as to how, and even if, these reforms would affect those most needy. Regardless, the historical change of government appeared to have been received across the island with optimism and relative calm.
Often I would hear people say things like; ‘it is what the people wanted’ and ‘this is good for democracy in this country.’ If democracy requires participation and equality, how then does one attain justice? At a conference I attended last year the legal scholar Ratna Kapur argued that justice implied haste, as the longer the delays in redressing injustice the greater it becomes (Kapur 2014).
Days after the election stories began to circulate that the leadership change was not as smooth as it had appeared, with allegations appearing in the press that the outgoing president attempted to convince police and military leaders to mount a coup (BBC News 2015). In light of these claims it is worth noting the following commentary published in The Guardian newspaper:
What has happened in Sri Lanka was not a revolution nor, at least not yet, a restoration of the democratic checks and balances of the past. It was instead an uprising within the dominant party in government against the high-handed style of the Rajapaksas (The Guardian 2015).
Echoing these sentiments is the journalist and human rights activist Trevor Grant, who wrote on the day the new President was sworn in:
…the central current issue of the UN war crimes investigation into the slaughter of up to 70,000 innocent Tamil civilians will receive the same blathering nationalistic rejection as Rajapaksa applied to it, from the moment he declared in 2009 that, despite the 70,000 or so dead bodies lying in the sands of Mullivaikal, his military had completed a humanitarian mission with zero casualty (Grant 2015).
The LTTE are also culpable of war crimes, however if one recalls the ‘white flag incident’ in which prominent insurgent leaders were executed soon after surrendering in the last days of the war (Harrison 2013), it seems those responsible amongst them may have already been dealt with. As Grant pointedly remarks, those in the Sri Lankan Government who are liable for such crimes are still, more or less, in power, including the newly elected Prime Minister who was the acting Minister of Defence around the time these executions occurred (Grant 2015).
Mahinda Rajapaksa was widely criticised for his government’s failure to seriously investigate these and other allegations of war crimes or to implement the recommendations made by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). His government’s refusal to cooperate with consecutive United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions and the president’s growing international disapproval led to the Council adopting a resolution in March 2014 to mount an independent international inquiry (resolution 25/1). Ryan Goodman commenting in the New York Times notes that the UNHRC’s probe is ultimately ‘toothless’, with no powers to prosecute or fine. In the interests of justice he suggests that the US Government could prosecute the former president’s brother and Sri Lankan defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is a naturalised US citizen and thus liable under its War Crimes Act of 1996 (Goodman 2015). Will the ‘international Tamil diaspora’ campaign for such actions to be taken and is there any impetus for the Obama administration to do so? Given these ongoing delays, negotiations and consultations, it seems inevitable that injustice will be prolonged for the foreseeable future.
The caretaker of my guesthouse in Jaffna was a young man named Sanjay, who hopes to one day run a small business of his own. On the day the election results were confirmed we watched celebrations rippling out across the nation on the television, mostly scenes of cheering men letting off loud firecrackers in the streets. In our reasonably affluent neighbourhood of Nallur the streets were quiet and calm. When I asked Sanjay what he thought of his new leader he smiled, shrugged and flicked the channel to a Tamil film beamed from across the Palk Strait, via satellite from India. ‘He is a politician’ he replied, suggesting to me that the election had no real bearing on his present circumstances or future aspirations. Why celebrate the change of government if you don’t believe it will bring real change? Now I wonder if Sanjay voted at all.
During my stay in Sri Lanka I have learned to be wary of the distortion of lived experiences and political agendas as they gain traction and develop abroad. I am also reluctant to dismiss the groundswell of hope and the will for change as being ultimately impotent. Rather, I remain perplexed—what now should the diaspora do? How might ‘people-to-people links’, as relations with Sri Lanka are described by Australian officials, support and stimulate movements for democracy rather than division, whilst advocating for justice and not only for Tamils? Or is the scenario being presented a choice between democracy and justice; in which the ‘70,000 innocent Tamil civilians’ slaughtered and the other casualties of war have become the price of peace? It seems as we celebrate democracy we simultaneously mourn justice.
No paradigm shift
In an email Sumathy included a poem she penned after the election result was announced:
My election days, 2015
campaigning, exciting, tense, nervous, delirium-invested, holding training sessions on the verandah for the immediate neighbourhood, as nobody but appa had voted in any previous presidential election, strangely agreeing with appa on politics for once, passing on all the wild gossip about the mr family, nightmare riddled pre election nights, sleeplessness, inducing drinking, exhilarating, liberating, cautionary, educating vasuki’s children about the elections (they are keenly interested), near addiction to fb and quarrelling with totally unknown friends on it, while another plethora of unknown persons writing in to befriend me, baila sessions, holding candle lit vigils for assassinated journalists, being connected to the universe on election night, through thiru, who was on every tweet, every note, every social bleep, planning, writing, tasking for the future, doubts, setting off crackers, taking to singing, questions, pondering profound political questions on the nature of the state, reforms or revolution, gramsci’s historic bloc, not stopping at paradigm shift as most liberal commentators have done with this over used and abused term, not bothering with muslim bashing in europe over charlie whatever, in fact, just a wee bit short of visionary.
no paradigm shift,
no revolution, it is toward …….
they cut the jak tree down in our backyard,
the day after elections.
the parrots displaced again.
If, as Sumathy apprehends it, the election was ‘no paradigm shift’ and ‘no revolution’ then what is to be gained, particularly for Sri Lanka’s minorities? Better representation? The promise of a more democratic future? Or simply a President who is more palatable to India and the West to do business with? The controversial Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim urges the Tamil diaspora to keep pressuring their governments to ensure justice is eventually seen in Sri Lanka (Solheim 2015), however the exiled journalist JS Tissainayagam questions if the international community would respond if the new president was found to be culpable for war crimes. Indeed, it is worth remembering Australia opposed the UN resolution to mount an international investigation into allegations of these crimes. Tissainayagam surmises: ‘The heart of the matter is whether national interests and international politics trump justice’ (Tissainayagam 2015).
If governments choose to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in the interests of security, trade and electoral politics then how does one advance justice? In recent years organisations such as Amnesty International, Freedom From Torture, Bar Human Rights Committee and The International Crisis Group have published stinging reports about the abuse of rights in post-war Sri Lanka. The International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP) in its 2014 report Island of Impunity finds reasonable evidence to accuse both Sri Lankan Forces and the LTTE of violations of international humanitarian law that amount to war crimes. These include intentional attacks against the civilian population, humanitarian aid and hospitals; rape and sexual violence; the taking of hostages, use of human shields and the conscription of children. ICEP also claims to have acquired testimonies about forensic evidence, such as mass graves, being covertly destroyed in the post-war period. The report wagers that if the crimes it has gathered evidence on were to proven at trial it could lead to the convictions of senior military commanders and Sri Lankan Government officials, as well as senior surviving members of the LTTE (ICEP 2014).
In February 2014 the independent non-government organisation Human Rights Watch addressed a letter to President Sirisena shortly after his election victory that raised a number of concerns including police torture, minority rights and conflict related accountability. The letter concludes with a list of recommendations that, amongst others, advised the new head of state to establish a ‘hybrid international-domestic court to prosecute those on both sides responsible for serious violations of international law’ (Roth 2015). In the lead up to the election Sririsena was firm that he would resist pressure to put the Rajapaksas or anyone in the security forces before an International War Crimes Court (cited in Tissainayagam 2015). Without an unbiased procedure there can be no accountability for war crimes—no paradigm shift.
Reflecting on my stay I have garnered a better understanding of the construction of nationalism in Jaffna and in the diaspora as well as the diversity of Tamil identities within Sri Lanka (and in relation to India). However as one that operates at the margins of the Tamil diaspora I am more familiar with the far-reaching repercussions of the war; such as the conditions of asylum seekers in immigration detention centres and holding zones around the world. I have a dialogue with a Tamil refugee who was detained in immigration detention in Thailand after attempting to flee Sri Lanka by boat in 2009. Him and other witnesses of possible war crimes once raised concerns about the conditions facing Tamils in Sri Lanka, but they now speak of the isolation and indeterminacy of the resettlement process and the violence of spaces that lie beyond the Sri Lankan state. If as Grant, Tissainayagam and others predict, that the new government will do little to address the issue of war crimes, then these injustices will continue to perpetuate, both within and beyond Sri Lanka. Despite the end of war and the new government it would seem hostilities are far from over, either at ‘home’ or abroad.
International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP). 2014, Island of Impunity? Investigation into international crimes in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, February.
Kapur, Ratna. 2014, “Precarious Desires and Postcolonial Justice: Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights.” Conference paper delivered at Postcolonial Justice, University of Potsdam, 29 May–1 June 2014.
Sumathy, Sivamohan. 2015, Personal correspondence, 18 February.