When the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tamil Tigers last spring, it was the end of the war. But for four veteran activists, this is just the beginning
I can smell chilies and spices in the cool night air. A few Tamil men and women are handing out biryani in Styrofoam containers to protesters gathered in front of Toronto’s U.S. Consulate. It is after 11 p.m. Stacks of bottled water sit next to a barricade. A few women in down jackets are slumped in lawn chairs. There are about 1,000 Tamil men, women, and children standing around. Occasionally, they shout slogans half-heartedly: “President Obama… save the Tamils!” and “Who bombed the safety zone…Sri Lankan government!”
Last winter, I watched tens of thousands of Tamils march Toronto’s streets, protesting the shelling of Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka. A vicious civil war had divided the country for decades and was grinding to its inevitable end. The state slaughtered civilians as it regained territory that had belonged to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE also shot and killed Tamils fleeing the combat zone. Estimates ranged from 7,000 to 20,000 Tamils killed.
On this night in May, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa has announced victory. The dispirited crowd at the consulate knows the LTTE is finished. Only a few of the distinctive rebel flags are unfurled.
As I walk through the crowd I watch Keerthana Kaneshalingam, age 12. Her lone sweet voice pummels the sombre silence, as other teenagers hold the microphone steady for her. “Recognize…Tamil Eelam!” she calls, referring to a Tamil homeland. “Media, media… open your eyes!”
“I seen a lot of things in Sri Lanka,” she says as she takes a break. “I feel very strong for my country. I feel like I want to stop the war.” She tells me about the terror of interrogation by the army.
I find my friend in the crowd and stand next to him. He tells me someone just took his picture and that he “smiled sweetly.” Do they know he is Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka? I am Tamil by descent, but people often tell me I look Sinhalese.
A 16-year-old girl approaches us and says, “So, do you guys support the Tamil Tigers?” I say that I’m a journalist, interested in hearing what people are thinking right now. She explains that Sinhalese people have been trying to disrupt the protests. Someone else complains about us to the police.
Constable R. Manoharan, a Tamil, walks over and begins to ask me something in Tamil. “I’m a journalist,” I say in English (my Tamil isn’t very good). As I talk to him, people start to close in around us and it feels like there is less oxygen in the air.
Different people keep asking me if I’m Tamil. “I am Tamil but I don’t speak it very well,” I say. The protesters are suspicious, likely because I was taking notes and not shouting slogans.
“We can’t tell you to leave,” says Manoharan. But maybe you should, goes unsaid. Another officer suggests we stay on the periphery. There are at least 50 police officers—Toronto cops, RCMP, and OPP—but I’m not reassured.
My friend tells me later that while I was talking with Manoharan, a few Tamil men hissed and swore at him in Sinhala, saying they would “fuck him up the ass.” I decide it’s time to leave. We walk down a side street. Several men follow and try to surround us. “Rajapaksa’s whore,” one of them sneers in Tamil.
I’ve watched the chaos of Sri Lanka’s civil war from a distance for most of my life. As a journalist, I’ve reported on Sri Lankan politics for the past four years, trying to understand the violence between Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims that has followed us here to the Canadian diaspora. I came to Canada in 1974 as a child. I returned to Sri Lanka for short visits in 1993, just after President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by the Tigers, and in 2003, during the ceasefire. I’ve gone searching for stories to understand the psyche of this war, to clarify the details of history and revenge, and to understand my own blood and bones. It’s a messy, complicated history. But I’m convinced that it is one we need to understand, especially since the end of the war last spring. In the aftermath, how do we nurture democracy, keep state power in check, and live together in a multi-ethnic society?
On this journey, I have talked to journalists in exile, survivors of LTTE torture and Sri Lankan state terror, human rights activists, writers, academics, students, and politicos young and old from all walks of life.
It’s the former Tamil militants and activists who fled Sri Lanka under threat from both the LTTE and the state that have made the deepest impression on me. They understand, first-hand and at great personal cost, why the armed struggle failed. As they see it—and I agree—the survival of the Tamil community lies in building alliances with the Sinhalese and Muslims, to create security, dignity, and equality for all Sri Lankans.
As we walk away from the hostility of the protesters in front of the U.S. Consulate, I wonder if they would consider the irony of their actions. They assumed I was a Sinhalese spy because, in LTTE politics, there is only one way to be Tamil: unconditional support for the LTTE and its political fantasy of an exclusively Tamil separate state.
Instead of reaching out to all Sri Lankans—Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslim—to challenge state barbarity, the LTTE hunted down, killed, or chased away the few Sinhalese living in Tamil areas after the war started in 1983. They expelled 75,000 Muslims from Jaffna, the northern peninsula in Sri Lanka, and massacred Muslims in the east in 1990. There is no question that Tamils have very real grievances about discrimination and state terror, but the LTTE’s armed struggle was, in reality, a fascist killing machine that failed to create security for Tamils.
After the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, the Sinhalese majority ruled with policies that discriminated against Tamils. Tamils were killed in pogroms between 1956 and 1983. Sinhala became the sole official language. Tamils had to obtain higher marks than Sinhalese to get into university. And government-sponsored Sinhalese settlements were set up in Tamil areas. When the LTTE killed several Sinhalese settlers, many Tamils were massacred. Finally, Tamil voices were excluded from the political sphere.
Last spring in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese people danced in the streets, celebrating the Sri Lankan army’s victory over the Tigers. But the root cause of the conflict remains: discrimination against minorities. An estimated 100,000 Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils, died during the 26-year conflict. The war ended with an estimated 280,000 Tamils held as prisoners in atrocious conditions in internment camps. The government says it is screening for Tiger cadres.
But surrendered militants in the camps have no further motivation to fight and no loyalty to the Tigers. In the final weeks of war, they witnessed their leadership’s callous use of waves of cadres in suicide attacks and civilian shields. By not allowing the right to freedom of movement to the majority in the camps, the state is creating a breeding ground for a new militancy. If displaced people in the camps were free to leave—to go back to their homes or stay with relatives—then those who remain could be looked after better and there would be no humanitarian crisis..
Furthermore, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime is perpetuating the practices that led to the war. The Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations, which were used as an excuse to disappear more than 2,000 people in the last three years, most of them young Tamil men, are being upheld. Despite massacring the LTTE leadership and cadres left in the combat zone, there are plans to increase the number of troops. And, in his first speech to parliament after the end of the war, the president said that there were no minorities in Sri Lanka, but failed to add that there was no majority either. As he spoke of patriotic Sri Lankans standing behind the national flag, dominated by the lion that symbolizes the Sinhalese, he implied that Sinhala majoritarianism would continue. Under such circumstances, the minority Tamil population cannot feel that they too are equal citizens.
Tamils are not the only ones suffering under this regime. Journalists and activists of any ethnicity who criticize the state face verbal and physical attacks, both from official sources and nationalist vigilantes. (Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, is known to equate criticism of government policies with treason.)
But things change fast in Sri Lanka. Four activists I talked to say this is a watershed opportunity to transform Sri Lankan politics and unite its broken civil society. They tell me the strategy of any social movement is to not become paralyzed, but to galvanize the silent moderate majority to take action, for when the right moment in history comes along and change is possible. They believe that moment is now.
On this typical February night, Chinniah Rajeshkumar cooks okra and potato curries at 1 a.m. in a Brooklyn apartment. Other activists and writers are drinking beer and wine, dancing to Bollywood songs, intermittently checking their emails, and, as always, talking Sri Lankan politics. The apartment, which belongs to a Sri Lanka Democracy Forum member, is a war room. During the week, the activists draft an SLDF statement, prepare for their talks, and give media interviews.
I finally get a chance to interview Rajeshkumar, 53, when I accompany him to JFK Airport, the night he leaves New York. He wears a grey wool coat and ties a black-and-yellow-striped scarf around his neck. He is Leonard Cohenesque in his thin-rimmed glasses and close-cropped hair, diffident and understated.
Rajeshkumar speaks slowly and thoughtfully as he tells me about his early years as a militant. As a teenager he used to read Tamil nationalist papers arguing that the fact that Tamils do not have a separate state is the root of their suffering. In 1974, at age 18, he met the Tamil New Tigers, a handful of guerrillas who robbed banks to buy arms. In 1976 TNT changed its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Rajeshkumar became a committed militant; his nom de guerre was Ragavan. But the Tigers’ evolving methods troubled him.
“I opposed internal killings and the killing of people in other militant organizations,” he says. He felt problems should be settled by talking; he says he could see a “continuous pattern” of killing happening. But Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, thought he alone should be in charge of the entire Tamil population, with the right to punish or kill those who disobeyed his orders. In 1982, while in India, Rajeshkumar left the Tigers.
Then the 1983 riots happened. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Tamils were butchered, torched, or beaten to death by Sinhalese mobs armed with voters’ lists provided by the government, which told them where Tamils lived. This anti-Tamil pogrom occurred after the Tigers killed 13 soldiers in Jaffna. It was the catalyst for civil war. Hundreds of Tamil youth flocked to the LTTE and other militant groups to fight the Sri Lankan state. India got involved and began to arm and train Tamil militants in camps all over South India. Dissent was not tolerated and internal killings were common.
The riots motivated Rajeshkumar to rejoin the LTTE. He wanted to change the organization. But it didn’t work. Rajeshkumar says watching unpoliticized youth become militarized scared him. He realized Prabhakaran no longer needed him, as the Tigers’ ranks swelled and cadres pledged unquestioning allegiance to the LTTE leader. He left the LTTE for good in 1984 at the age of 28.
As the lights of Brooklyn rush past the car window, I can see Rajeshkumar’s silhouette in the back seat as he remembers the trauma and heartache of leaving the movement. “I was not able to talk to people. In a normal conversation, I didn’t know what to talk about, whether it was a house or food,” he says. “It was totally alien for me.”
He lived underground in Chennai, in a poor fishermen’s neighbourhood, hiding from the LTTE, doing manual labour and working for a smuggler to support others who had left militant groups, struggling to find food and shelter. He was disillusioned and heartbroken. “I was very angry and disappointed because we believed in certain things. For a while I was not able to come to terms,” he says. “Now I can see what is wrong, what we did.” In 1986, he fled to the U.K., where he continues to live in exile.
We arrive at the airport and say goodbye. On the way back to Brooklyn, Rajeshkumar’s friend tells me a story. After Rajeshkumar left the Tigers and was living in South India, a spy, working for the Tigers, was discovered among the former militants. A few men decided to kill the spy. Rajeshkumar found out and rushed to the place where the murder was to take place. He argued that if they killed the man, then they would be no better than the Tigers, whose violent methods they opposed. He was able to save the man’s life.
When I contact Rajeshkumar a few months after the war’s end, he tells me he fears for the surrendered Tigers in the camps. “The armed forces have no hesitation to kill or torture those suspected of having connections with the LTTE; I do not believe LTTE cadres captured would receive humane treatment,” he wrote to me in an email. “I also fear that senior cadres will be tortured and killed without a trace.” He believes low-ranking Tigers should be given amnesty and support to rebuild their lives, and child soldiers should be returned to their families.
He also says prosecution for war crimes should cut both ways: “If the government presses charges against the LTTE, armed forces that violated the norms of war should also be brought to justice.”
On the Brooklyn-bound Q train, 56-year-old Nirmala Rajasingam begins to sing a Tamil-movement song. It’s close to midnight. Four others, sitting across from her, sing along. Several other passengers on the train stare straight ahead; they don’t even flinch at this group of drunken human-rights activists crooning in Tamil. Rajasingam sits on the edge of her seat, her hair frizzy and wild, brown coat open, and drums the palm of her hand on a metal pole. “All these things that seem immutable and unchangeable can change; do change,” she sings.
Rajeshkumar and Rajasingam met after they’d both left the Tigers. They’ve been partners for more than 20 years and have a 22-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. Sometimes Rajasingam introduces Rajeshkumar as “the father of my children.” They’ve had a turbulent relationship at times, but their passion for politics keeps them together.
In 1979 the government was abducting and disappearing Tamils. Rajasingam supported Tamil militants fighting state terror. She began talking to all the militant groups and held discussions in her home. She helped the LTTE with practical tasks.
“We wanted to bring about a socialist revolution. Rajani [her sister] and I wanted to join the armed struggle,” she says. “Whatever we preached, we wanted to practice.”
For working with the Tigers, Rajasingam was the first woman arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1982. In prison, she met poor Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim women serving sentences for murder, for female infanticide, for fraud. The prostitutes taught her to speak Sinhala. “The prostitutes were great fun,” she says. “They would get arrested, serve their sentences, and be back in prison two months later. ‘Nirmala, you’re still here!’ they’d say.”
Prison changed her profoundly. “[The other prisoners] had seen the enormity of life’s difficulties in a personal way,” she says. “I was just a romantic revolutionary who was very hard and exacting about people’s commitment to politics. [Prison] mellowed me.”
After she had been in detention for 22 months, the LTTE helped Rajasingam escape from prison to Chennai, India. She was appalled that the Tigers’ leader, Prabhakaran, had just ordered one of his henchmen to kill the leader of another militant group. The attempt failed. “I thought, oh my god, why are we doing this? Who made this decision?”
Rajasingam left the LTTE in December 1984 and hid out in South India until she was able to escape to the U.K. She was still married to her first husband, also an ex-Tiger, but met Rajeshkumar shortly after.
In 1986, the LTTE began to systematically massacre the other militant groups that had formed to stand up to the state. With the help of the Indian government, the Tigers became a huge army overnight. “They were no longer accountable to the ordinary people in Sri Lanka,” Rajasingam says. “They became warlords. They could tell people what to do instead of listening to find out what the people really wanted.”
Tamil nationalists and Tiger supporters often say the non-violent struggle against state terror failed and the armed struggle was unavoidable. But both Rajasingam and Rajeshkumar say Tamil politicians did not attempt to create political discussions with sectors of society such as labour groups and women’s groups. And civil rights campaigns and non-violence were never seriously attempted.
Rajasingam says organizing at the grassroots level would have given the Tamil people tools to rein in the Tigers. “They wouldn’t have put up with all this nonsense that the Tigers trotted out, like killing somebody and saying, ‘He’s a traitor, so we killed him.’” After the LTTE’s rapid rise, such resistance was impossible: they demolished civil society by killing social activists, members of women’s groups, and Marxists.
Indian arms and training launched the Tigers as a ferocious militant force, and financial support from the Tamil diaspora sustained them. Both were toxic as they took away the Tamil people’s control of their struggle for rights. As the LTTE’s power base grew outside Sri Lanka, it could treat local Tamils with contempt: forced recruitment of children, torture camps, assassinations of dissenters. With its link to the Tigers, the Tamil diaspora has acquired far more significance than it deserves, says Rajasingam. “They are removed from the theatre of war. So they really cannot know and understand the interests of people who are suffering.”
Pressure from abroad, including sections of Canada’s large Tamil community, is disconnected from the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. Tamils in the diaspora should play a secondary role, and that includes SLDF, she says. “The people [in Sri Lanka] have to decide.”
Though Rajasingam does believe uniting Tamils and Sinhalese is the key to lasting peace: “This quest should be an alliance from all communities. The realization of Tamil aspirations will come from that.”
She also says Sinhalese progressives have a leading role to play and mentions Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sinhalese editor of the Sunday Leader who was killed in January 2009 for his criticism of the Rajapaksa regime. “Lone voices come up and they get crushed,” she says. “Sinhalese progressives must band together and speak up for minorities.”
Early the next morning, Rajasingam and I head down to the Democracy Now news studio, located in a red and white firehouse in lower Manhattan. During an interview, the host asks her whether she agrees that what is happening in Sri Lanka is genocide. It’s a loaded term, one often invoked during last winter’s protests.
Rajasingam answers, saying there were human-rights violations and war crimes by both sides. She explains the term prevents anyone from engaging with the Sri Lankan state, conceals the LTTE’s own atrocities against Tamils, and undervalues the more than 2,000, mostly Tamils, who have been disappeared by state forces in recent years. “Genocide” justifies armed struggle and alienates Sinhalese people from Tamils even more.
On another night, while we are walking back to the Brooklyn apartment after yet another panel discussion, Rajasingam reminisces about the late-night curries, the drinking, the dancing to Bollywood tunes. “It’s an escape from all the horrible things, from the overwhelming knowledge of everything we have to do,” she says. “And the guilt of not having done it.”
Based in Mumbai, Rohini Hensman, 61, travels to Sri Lanka once or twice a year and writes extensively on the ethnic conflict. She is a Sri Lankan Tamil who is part Burgher (Sri Lankan with European ancestry) and came to Toronto in April for an international conference on South Asian solidarity.
Hensman is warm and immediately disarming when I meet her at the home of a Toronto Sri Lankan activist, her hair tucked away in a bun, a burgundy shawl over her shoulders. She tells me about the 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom. Her family was living in a predominantly Sinhalese area in Mount Lavinia, south of Colombo. “One of our neighbours came and said she’d heard that gangs were coming,” says Hensman.
Hensman laughs as she remembers that her parents started to make Molotov cocktails. Sinhalese neighbours rallied around them. One young Sinhalese woman close to the family threatened to throw herself in the well if they didn’t run for their lives. Hensman’s family was packed into a car, and, braving the curfew, neighbours took them to another Sinhalese family’s home to hide out.
“That experience shaped my vision,” says Hensman. “It taught me that love crosses these barriers.” She rejects the notion held by Tamil nationalists in the diaspora that Tamils will survive only with a separate state. “If you accept the legitimacy of an exclusively Tamil, and as it happens, totalitarian state, how do you argue against an exclusively Sinhala totalitarian state?” Hensman asks. And she warns Sinhalese nationalists that the culture of impunity that has so oppressed Tamils (fuelled by Sinhala nationalism) will someday be used against the Sinhalese: “If you want to keep the country safe for your children, you’ve got to stop the kinds of atrocities that are being done to Tamil civilians.”
I reach her four months later in Mumbai and we continue our conversation over the phone. Since our last meeting, she has written several articles on the situation in the camps and tells me the majority of Sinhalese people don’t know that Tamils are being held against their will. This is startling to hear. The Sinhala-language papers don’t talk about the real conditions in the camps and the English papers often say that Tamils are being taken care of in “welfare camps,” with food, water, and medical care that the rural Sinhalese poor don’t have, she says.
Hensman says groups fighting for Tamil rights must find ways to communicate with the Sinhalese, in the Sinhala language, in print, and in person. What makes this mission difficult, she says, is the fact that, over the last 30 years, the LTTE has assassinated Tamils who were willing to work with the government, talk to Sinhalese people, and who believed that Tamils could thrive only in a multi-ethnic society. For instance, in 1975, the Tigers killed Alfred Duraiappah, a Tamil and mayor of Jaffna town, because he was willing to work with the Sinhala-dominated state. He believed Tamils and Sinhalese could live side by side and was seen as a traitor.
As moderate voices were silenced, either by exile or murder, a narrative of continuous attacks on Tamils developed, with one massacre after another. But Sinhalese have also been attacked by the state. The Sinhala-dominated government massacred an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Sinhalese during two Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurgencies against the government in 1971 and from 1987 to 1989. The Sri Lankan state has easily killed more Sinhalese than the Tigers ever did.
Tamil nationalists and Tiger supporters ignored Sinhalese suffering, instead of taking the opportunity to join forces to fight the state that was terrorizing them both. “I don’t remember much sympathy toward the Sinhalese youth who were rounded up and massacred at the time,” says Hensman.
The 1983 riots are often seen as the end of the possibility of Tamils and Sinhalese living together. But coexistence has been a fact of life all over the island for hundreds of years as people have migrated and been intertwined through marriage.
From a distance, it is possible to see ordinary Sinhalese people as racist, says Hensman. “If you live among the Sinhalese it’s not the case. Translating political events into the social situation on the ground doesn’t come that easily if you don’t spend time in the different communities.”
Hensman thinks a revival of a strong left is critical for the future of democracy in Sri Lanka. Historically, Sri Lankan leftist politics was multi-ethnic, organizing at a grassroots level to fight for the rights of the working class and all minorities. But a breakaway group of Sinhalese leftists formed an alliance with the state in 1964, abandoning minorities and strengthening right-wing Sinhala nationalism. Many Tamil leftists drifted into Tamil nationalist parties and militant groups.
Right now, says Hensman, remnants of the left feel they have to work with the government instead of working at a grassroots level. Hensman says she thinks the left should go back to organizing among the working class and rural poor—of all ethnicities—to gather a small base with which to challenge the government during the next election.
When Kopalasingham Sritharan left Jaffna in 1990, he was hiding in a truck carrying onions. He could not simply walk out of Jaffna. The LTTE had a pass system; he needed permission to leave rebel territory. And he was haunted by the death of his friend Rajani Thiranagama. The Tigers had just killed her.
Sritharan had been teaching math at Jaffna University. He joined forces with professors Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, and Rajani Thiranagama to write The Broken Palmyra, a seminal book documenting violations by the Indian army, the Tigers, and the state. “LTTE politics had destroyed the community,” he says. “We needed to bring out the narrative of the people.”
The organization University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) was born. Over the next 20 years, UTHR(J) became the most important organization documenting human-rights abuses in Sri Lanka. And it has captured the voices of the people: Tamils who defied the Tigers and tried to rescue their children from its ranks; and Sinhalese soldiers who risked their lives to save Tamils in the combat zone last winter, among so many other nuances of the war.
Meanwhile, a copy of The Broken Palmyra got into the hands of the Tigers and Thiranagama (Nirmala Rajasingam’s sister) was gunned down by the LTTE on her way home from the university one night in September 1989. After her death, many dissidents fled.
Sritharan, 54, tells me about the stress of standing up to terror. Watching his community disintegrate, years of living underground, his wife’s nightmares, living in fear in Sri Lanka, then in exile in Afghanistan, Nepal, India, uprooting his children again and again, and not being able to stay connected to friends and relatives. “We’ve become very isolated,” he says.
In 2007, Sritharan was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, along with his colleague Rajan Hoole, for their work as co-founders of UTHR(J). Through their own investigations in Sri Lanka and with a network of contacts, they have written report after report of human-rights violations by all the actors of war since the late 1980s. Focusing on stories about ordinary people, they’ve documented the heavy price civilians have paid.
For this service, Sritharan has lived under threat from both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state. He now lives in Toronto with his family and is struggling to live a more open life after decades underground. It is emotionally difficult to reconnect to friends and family he has not talked to in 20 years, he says.
We meet often to talk politics. The only signs of strain are his thin strands of grey hair. Sritharan is soft-spoken and calm despite all that he has endured. He talks about how frustrating it is to be away from Sri Lanka at this crucial time.
“Writing the reports is fine but we are unable to push for change, to organize,” he says. “Unless you’re there and meeting people, it is impossible to get involved.”
While Tamil nationalists who supported the Tigers have taken an all-or-nothing political stance—give us a separate state or we will fight to the death—Sritharan is more pragmatic.
Right now, the government is capitalizing on post-war euphoria to consolidate its power, he explains, and extremist Sinhalese nationalists in the government, who reduced the conflict to a war on terror, have the upper hand. Although the Sinhalese extremists are vociferous, they will not be able to sustain themselves if democratic forces with a broader agenda can act together, he says. The majority of Sinhalese do not support their majoritarian agenda. It is this silent majority that Tamils must reach out to, he believes.
Tamil activists also need to talk to the moderates in the government and challenge them to be more assertive, he says: “Progressive individuals in the government can go to the camps, talk to Tamil people, come out with a confidential report to the government.”
In post-war Sri Lanka, all sides must re-evaluate their past and rebuild a multi-ethnic, multilingual country, but the current regime has shown little inclination toward that, Sritharan says. Tamils are weak politically—made so by the destructive politics of the Tigers— and Sritharan doesn’t believe that now is the time to push for a political solution. The most critical issue is the Tamils in the internment camps. He says people should be sent home to start rebuilding their normal lives. “We need to strategize and push for reconstruction, rehabilitation, allow Tamils to go back to their communities, empower them to engage with the government to do meaningful development—and hold the government accountable,” he says.
Sritharan strategizes on impulse, always thinking ahead, sure that Sri Lanka’s future is malleable, not written in stone by nationalists. The first step, he says, is to create an environment where Tamils can work with, and criticize, the government if they want to, without being killed.
Sritharan says he feels accusing the state of war crimes at this stage would only isolate the Sinhalese people and strengthen the extremists. He says it would be more effective to work on accountability for human-rights violations, like the Action Contre la Faim case where 17 Sri Lankan aid workers, 16 Tamil and one Muslim, were killed execution-style by security forces in Mutur. “It’s not about putting the blame on the Sinhalese people,” he says. “It’s about the state and its degeneration.”
Sritharan gets more specific about his strategy for Tamils now: first, identify who the Sinhalese progressive political and social forces are; second, work with them to poke holes in Sinhala nationalist ideology; and third, ask them to visit Tamil villages and organize public talks to find out what people want, and help Tamils open up and discuss their needs in a safe space.
If this does not happen, then any kind of peace and development that is forged will be too fragile to last. And Sri Lankans will once again be at the mercy of extremism: a world where Tamil nationalists believe a legitimate road to secession is taking away the very rights they are fighting for; a world where Sinhalese nationalists believe that Sri Lanka is only for the Sinhalese.
“Tamils and Sinhalese should constantly challenge each other,” he says. “You don’t wait for things to happen. You play a role and consciously work toward that end.”
This tribe of Sri Lankan-Tamil activists embodies a different kind of philosophy: to work toward peace by creating real justice in Sri Lanka. It’s a vision that moves away from war politics and addresses social injustices that Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims have all suffered, and that have been pushed aside for decades. As postwar euphoria fades, the government will no longer be able to blame the LTTE and the war budget for the shattered state of the economy. It’s a void that needs to be filled with a united, multi-ethnic democratic challenge to the state.
But this is not the post-independence Sri Lanka of 1948. LTTE terror has assaulted the Sinhalese psyche for 30 years and an entire generation of Tamils has grown up shaped by the nightmare of disappearances by the state. And the LTTE has been an overpowering force, with its culture of fear, controlling the psychology of the Tamil community. The challenge for democratic forces will be to bring home the message of interdependence: if you are Sinhalese and you don’t fight for Tamil rights, then the totalitarian state you foster with your silence will soon take away your rights too; and if you are Tamil and you do not forge links and understand the tremendous loss of life of Sinhalese soldiers—poor people who enlisted so their families could eat—then Tamil rights will never be achieved.
In a totalitarian situation, most people learn what they have to do to survive. But these four Sri Lankan–Tamil activists have stood up to terror and have paid dearly for it in different ways. Forced into exile, on the run, having lost friends and family to assassinations, they still struggle for the rights of all Sri Lankans. And that’s exactly why their vision is so vital, at such a crucial historic moment.