By S Mubashir Noor
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended seven years ago, but social fault-lines dividing the country have not yet closed. Ethnic Tamils worldwide still resent the Sinhalese-dominated state for alleged war crimes committed during the insurgency and for its piecemeal efforts at resettling internally displaced Tamils. What pains them more than material losses wrought by two decades of bloodshed is the war’s long and ominous shadow on today’s Tamil youth. Unmoored from mainstream society, these young men and women are Sri Lanka’s lost generation.
On March 8, 2016, Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) Youth chief Sivarraajh Chandran slammed Malaysia’s home ministry for mulling the import of former Sri Lankan soldiers as security guards, imploring Kuala Lumpur to rethink this “mad scheme.” Why? Because “it does not consider the sensitivities of Tamils all over the world. Tamils hate Sri Lankan soldiers who had massacred civilians in the long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE),” Chandran explained. Last year, Sri Lankans voted President Maithripala Sirisena and his ‘rainbow coalition’ into office on pledges of uniting a fractured country and he clearly has his work cut out for him.
Sri Lanka’s civil war officially began in 1983, but its roots lay in events three and a half millennia earlier. Around 1500 BCE, Aryan invaders from the North swooped down on the Indian subcontinent and conquered its Dravidian denizens. The Buddhist Sinhalese claim ancestry from the Aryans while Hindu Tamils are the progeny of ancient Dravidians. Time, intermarriages and internal migration healed most ethno-religious rifts, but Sri Lanka’s continued to fester. Structural inequalities inflamed these grievances after the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1948.
Sinhalese nationalists begrudged their British masters for favouring the island’s Tamil minority because they staffed its lucrative tea export business. After Britain’s exit, these nationalists took advantage of superior numbers to upend the status quo in their favour. In 1972, Sinhalese politicians changed the country’s name from historical Ceylon to Sri Lanka and installed Buddhism as the state religion. This triggered a Tamil backlash that soon bloomed into armed conflict.
Young Tamils in Jaffna and other LTTE controlled areas were the most vulnerable actors in this war. They unwittingly sank into a giant whirlpool of hatred while both LTTE and Colombo used them as cannon fodder. Child soldiers, some barely in their teens, received cyanide pills from LTTE commanders in a macabre suicide-pact to live and die by the Eelam flag. Few of these thousands were willing participants and LTTE used a mixture of coercion and rewarded cooperation to pry one child from each Tamil family.
Over 500 child soldiers reportedly died in a single battle at Kilinochchi in 1998 and a 2004 UNICEF report revealed the LTTE had drafted over 3,500 underage fighters two years into an uneasy ceasefire. The Sri Lankan government too was guilty of equal crimes. Allan Rock, a special adviser to the UN Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, claimed in 2006 that “Sri Lankan security forces rounded up children to be recruited by the ‘Karuna’ faction,” a turncoat LTTE wing.
Even today, Sri Lanka’s Tamil youth live in emotional limbo and betray a nihilistic streak born of the country’s dark past. A particularly grim caricature paints young males as creatures of street corners: smoking, drinking and harassing women. Underage addiction to drugs and alcohol have skyrocketed and so have regional suicide rates. The mistrustful presence of military personnel in former LTTE areas further complicates their postwar reintegration into Sri Lankan society.
Upon election, Sirisena promised to shun the divisive politics of his forerunner Mahinda Rajapaksa and spark an era of interracial harmony. In May 2015, however, a damning report by the American think-tank Oakland Institute rubbished Sirisena’s peacemaking credentials by alleging “a silent war continues under a different guise.” This report accused Colombo of resettling Tamils in rundown areas and condemned Sri Lanka’s army for profiting off “luxury resorts and golf courses erected on land seized from now internally displaced peoples.”
Furthermore, even with Sirisena’s best intentions, Sri Lanka’s economic instability impedes a robust national development agenda. Though it boasts a 7.4 percent growth rate, Sri Lanka’s budget deficit-to-GDP ratio hovers above 6.5 percent and serious liquidity problems are offset only through the five billion dollars in overseas remittances. Predictably, the International Monetary Fund cracked down on Colombo to curb spending and introduce austerity measures through its November 2015 budget. These measures will widen the infrastructure gap and make it harder to ratchet up investment in education and training programmes for young Tamils.
Though time heals all wounds and the LTTE movement has all but faded into history, racial politics has a way of rearing its ugly head when least expected so it behooves Sirisena to keep a lookout. In Pakistan, for instance, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (continues to sway young muhajirs (refugees) by selling retrograde victimhood and an adversarial narrative versus the state. Indeed, if the army had not stepped in last year, Karachi would still be smoldering from ethnic and sectarian strife.
(The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer based in Islamabad)