Waiting for the Next War in Sri Lanka?

Waiting for the Next War in Sri Lanka?

Interviews during a visit to Batticaloa at the end of October last year during Interfaith Cooperation Forum’s (ICF) School of Peace (SOP) in Sri Lanka raised as many questions about the country’s future as it provided a deeper understanding about its violent past.

Interviews during a visit to Batticaloa at the end of October last year during Interfaith Cooperation Forum’s (ICF) School of Peace (SOP) in Sri Lanka raised as many questions about the country’s future as it provided a deeper understanding about its violent past.

As part of the three-week School of Peace (SOP) that Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) conducted in Sri Lanka in October and November last year, field visits were arranged for all of the 25 participants to spend five days in different parts of the country to learn about the past experiences of Sri Lanka’s people and their hopes for the future. I and five others went to Batticaloa in the eastern part of the country, a predominantly Tamil area where Sri Lanka’s civil war was felt intensely.

Our visit took place 18 months after 26 years of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE, which had launched a war in July 1983 to create a Tamil homeland in the North and East of the country that would be free of the discrimination that Tamils say they have had to bear from the Singhalese, the majority of the population of the island-nation. This discrimination, we were told, became evident with the passage of a law in 1956 that made Singhalese the official language of the country that made Tamils marginal citizens of Sri Lanka.

The effects of the war on people’s lives become quickly apparent when listening to the stories of a group of Tamil women.

The husband of one woman, for instance, was seized by the army after a bomb blast in 1986 near Batticaloa and has never returned in spite of her search for five years. His disappearance was followed by the deaths of her father and brother in 1992 in Trincomalee. They had gone there to work but were fatally shot by the army after a bomb blast in the harbor there. She described her struggle to find her husband and at the same time provide for the needs of her two sons. After unsuccessfully searching for her husband for five years, she went to the Middle East to work as a domestic helper for 13 years to support her children. It was only when her eldest son got a job that she returned to Sri Lanka. Later the electrical appliances she bought with the money she earned abroad were all destroyed when the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in December 2004.

A second woman recounted how her son, who was in high school at the time, was arrested by the army in 1987 after another bomb blast in Batticaloa. When searching for him in an army camp that evening, she saw him in an army truck. It was the last time she saw him. Later one son-in-law was taken by the army from his home for an inquiry on the day his wife gave birth to their baby. He too has disappeared and has never been seen again, and another son-in-law was shot dead in crossfire between the army and LTTE. Her husband was killed by the tsunami.

The women explained how the army and the police always denied they held their relatives even when they were last seen in the custody of the security forces. They also explained that male relatives or members of human rights groups could not inquire about a case or they too would disappear. Meanwhile, Tamil politicians, they said, were afraid to speak out. Today people are still afraid to share their stories, they added, even though the war ended more than a year ago.

The stories of these women were echoed by the residents of a Tamil village near Batticaloa. In September 1990, they recalled how 142 males in the village were taken by the army as LTTE suspects and disappeared in a camp that had been set up at Eastern University. Like the women above, they anxiously did everything they could to locate their loved ones, writing letters to the president, the Red Cross and human rights organizations. Their relatives still remain disappeared 20 years later, however.

When questioned whether religion was a factor behind the country’s violent conflict as Singhalese people are primarily Buddhists and Tamils are predominantly Hindus, the women responded that people’s religious faith is not a problem. Rather, they noted that it was discrimination in educational and employment opportunities before, during and after the war that has created tensions between the Singhalese and Tamil communities.

Their views were echoed by a religious leader who explained that it is political leaders in the country who have created tensions between people of different faiths. He said that this attempt to divide the people of Sri Lanka puts a responsibility on religious leaders to lead the people to live peacefully together. If the religious leaders of different faiths try to speak out, however, he said, the government will either try to bribe them, threaten them or even kill them.

A message that was clearly conveyed by everyone that the SOP participants met, regardless of their ethnic, religious or professional background, was that people still live in fear, whether they are from the minority community of Tamils or the dominant Singhalese community. There is a lack of trust between the two communities that has not diminished with the end of the war. Moreover, the Sri Lankan government has not created an environment in which people feel free to express themselves—again, regardless of their ethnic background—and this hesitation to speak openly extends not only to political issues but extends to economic and other topics as well.

The Tamil women above whose relatives disappeared shared with the SOP participants that they, on one hand, did not back the LTTE because their husbands and children were arrested and disappeared and the women suffered as a result. However, they said that, on the other hand, they supported the LTTE for standing up for the rights of the Tamil people. The end of the war, they explained, did not diminish the need for a good Tamil leader or leaders to defend the rights of the Tamil people.

Another observation during the field visit was the continuing military presence in areas near Batticaloa formerly controlled by the LTTE. The checkpoints and army posts and a military camp also indicate that the Sri Lankan government does not trust the future as well. Moreover, it raises concerns that the intentions of the government are not to address the underlying issues of discrimination against Tamils that prompted the war 26 years ago but rather to trumpet the victory of the Singhalese-controlled government instead of implementing policies that will foster reconciliation and engender justice.

It is feared that, unless a new direction in policy is quickly undertaken by the Sri Lankan government, the seeds of the next civil war in the country are being planted, awaiting only a new manifestation of the LTTE to be born. If this ominous forecast proves unfortunately to be accurate, both the Singhalese and Tamil people will once again suffer the tragic consequences of this violent attempt to resolve Sri Lanka’s political problems.

With Peace,

Bruce Van Voorhis

(Bruce Van Voorhis works in Hong Kong for Interfaith Cooperation Forum [ICF], a regional network of young Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous activists working for justpeace at the grassroots level in South and Southeast Asia. ICF is a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs [APAY] in Hong Kong where Bruce is based and the Christian Conference of Asia [CCA] located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.)

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as overseas staff with the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCA’s in Hong Kong.  He serves as the Coordinator for Interfaith Programs.