Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Taking Back Democracy in Sri Lanka

by Vindhya Buthpitiya, The-Platform, UK, December 30, 2011

It is not my intention to evaluate the steps taken by the government towards achieving lasting reconciliation in Sri Lanka, but rather to question the extent to which a government’s responsibility to foster reconciliation must be met by civil society efforts. If a year of revolutions has taught us anything, it is that change must come from the ground, from people uniting under a shared cause.

Within post-war Sri Lanka, save for those who remain subjugated by unequal social, political and economic structures and practices, silence and complacency prevail.

Amidst the economic crises, political turmoil and natural disasters that have cast a grim shadow on the world in 2011, in its post-war renaissance, Sri Lanka has been dubbed a ‘bright spot’ in the bleak global fabric patched and torn by the hands of protestors chasing real revolutions.

A resilient market, an enviable growth rate, large scale construction projects and highways on the rise, the Sri Lankan government’s strong development agenda has begun to weave an optimistic cocoon over the wounds of a three-decade long civil war.  Tourists who once shied away, fearing the sombre warnings in their guidebooks, have begun to succumb to the island’s allure by thethousands. Sri Lanka’s 2011 has been one of hope that cushions the apathetic wealthy and reminds the poor of what they are yet to achieve. Despite the decades of global development experiences that disprove the benefits of trickledown economics, Sri Lanka trundles through to another new year that remembers all that was won and lost in May 2009.

Yet, what of the aftermath of three decades of brutality? Sri Lanka’s own Cassandra curse lies in her people’s short memory.

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government confirmed a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after months of concentrated fighting, leaving an estimated 300,000 civilians displaced. Housed in welfare camps, Sri Lanka’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) faced an indisputable humanitarian disaster.

According to the United Nations’ Joint Humanitarian and Early Recovery Update in September 2011, 7534 IDPs remained in camps waiting to return to their areas of origin, while 384,401 people returned to the Northern Province (UNOCHA 2011). Reconstruction projects such as Uthuru Vasanthaya (Northern Spring) and “Nagenahira Udanaya” (Eastern Dawn), sponsored by the state and international organisations, continue to emphasise infrastructure development as a means of returning Sri Lanka’s North- Eastern terrain to normalcy. However, what is often forgotten is that underlying these efforts are the very ethno-politics of resource distribution that fuelled Sri Lanka’s civil war many years ago.

Two years and eight months later, what of the hatred that bred terrorism and the violence that bloodied the North and South alike, and the generation of displaced whose whole lives have been defined by the explosive connotations of ethnicity and geography? Even though new roads and buildings have begun to form a cosmetic skin over deep wounds of war, what of the conflict that pressed for thousands of deaths over several decades? Have they been folded into the Freudian depths of the nation’s short memory?

In the aftermath of the government’s military victory, sanguine slogans of unity and reconciliation were exchanged with ease. “We do not have the time to be experimenting with the solutions suggested by other countries,” the President declared in a smug tour de force statement that asserted Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and the government’s military victory. True to this word, the brothers Rajapakse have flouted Western interference questioning and condemning human rights abuses, the lack of media freedom, militarisation in the North-East, commonplace disappearances and abductions, and retribution against seeds of opposition. Even the much-awaited Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, commissioned by the President, cautiously pays predictable lip service to the national propaganda machine amidst yet another flurry of international uproar.

Where are these promised home-grown solutions?

The answers to achieving a sustainable peace may not be as straightforward as the Big Brother State furthering an ‘evil Sinhalese agenda’ , suggests. Is the creation of a sustainable peace the government’s responsibility alone?

Well over two years have passed since 2009, yet language policies and ethnic integration issues are still being mulled over by the nation’s hired thinkers, a footnote in Sri Lanka’s post-war agenda that seeks to transform Sri Lanka into a veritable Tian of Chinese cosmology or tourists, whichever comes first in this small Asian miracle. However, even within these limitations, progress, albeit slow, is not entirely absent.

It is not my intention to evaluate the steps taken by the government towards achieving lasting reconciliation in Sri Lanka, but rather to question the extent to which a government’s responsibility to foster reconciliation must be met by civil society efforts. If a year of revolutions has taught us anything, it is that change must come from the ground, from people uniting under a shared cause.

Within post-war Sri Lanka, save for those who remain subjugated by unequal social, political and economic structures and practices, silence and complacency prevail. We have forgotten that a citizen’s mandate to uphold democracy does not end with a ceremonial ballot that occurs twice a decade. The principle of majority rule inevitably produces an often-marginalised minority; therefore it is our civic responsibility to assure political pluralism and equal access to decision-making processes. Yet we, citizens and diaspora alike, deride the slow workings of bureaucracies, forgetting our own accountability to those victims; men, women and children who were subjected to a war that was not their own, merely because of the Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala ink that coloured their identification papers.

South Africa is often heralded as a poster-nation for policy success with its state-of-the-art constitution, and for inspiring the likes of Nelson Mandela with the end of the apartheid in 1994. However, what is often forgotten is that South Africa is presently plagued by incomprehensible levels of economic inequality that remain divided along old racialised apartheid boundaries, hand in hand with a crushing HIV/AIDS crisis that plague these very demarcations. Despite the preambles of equality and human dignity in the constitution that marked a triumph for a fractured nation’s potential for progressive change, the wounds of social divide continue to fester.

Inclusive policies advocated by a government merely accommodate a country’s optimism, our utopian visions for equality and progress. Ultimately policies remain words on paper that do not revive the dead, heal the disabled, or  in the end, correct real world wrongs. They are sometimes agents of change in an ink and paper world, but often they are also carrots on sticks that tease the hungry.

As much as the conflict is often dubbed as one that appeared out of political myopia that exploited divides among Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups, the social problems that underlie those divides must not be forgotten. Perhaps it is in the nature of Sri Lanka’s socialist democratic political culture to await change until it is compelled.  But while Sri Lankan civil society settles into its warm bath of post-war complacency, what will determine Sri Lanka’s road to reconciliation are the actions of its people. The responsibility of upholding values of unity and reconciliation is not one that must simply be pursued by the government, but rather one that must be actively sought after by the people. Regardless of ethnicity or religion, we all bear equal responsibility in ensuring that society lives up to the constitution’s promises of inclusivity and equality.

Change lies in the hands of people, not just in that of governments.


Vindhya Buthpitiya completed an MA in Social in Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews before she finished an MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. She currently resides in Colombo where she is trying to understand Post-Conflict Social Integration.