The long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was finally declared over in May 2009 following the capture of its capital, Kilinochchi by the Sri Lankan government. The Civil War had raged since 1983, and culminated in the battles that killed the Tigers’ leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran and 250 of his most loyal followers. Many of Mr. Prabhakaran’s surviving followers committed suicide by biting cyanide tablets which they carried around their necks rather than face capture.
The Sri Lankan military forbade international observers, journalists and NGOs from reporting on the battle, which reportedly killed countless Tamils unconnected to the LTTE’s core military elements. According to the United Nations, close to 23,700 civilians were either killed or wounded in fighting between January 20th and May 7th of 2009. Pierre Krähenbühl, the director of operations of the ICRC said at the time, “Our staff are witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe…Despite high-level assurances, the lack of security on the ground means that our sea operations continue to be stalled, and this is unacceptable.”
In the aftermath, Tamils do not necessarily identify as Sri Lankan, especially those who were rebels against the state most or all of their lives. Because LTTE efforts to create their own homeland were thwarted, and many Tamils do not identify as Sri Lankan they can effectively be considered stateless. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has done a poor job of incorporating them into the fabric of Sri Lankan society. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) states, “Statelessness occurs for a variety of reasons including discrimination against minority groups in nationality legislation, failure to include all residents in the body of citizens when a state becomes independent (state succession) and conflicts of laws between states.” The first two conditions apply to Sri Lankan Tamils.
Following independence from Great Britain in 1948 the Sinhalese majority effectively marginalized the Tamil minority by denying jobs and basic education. Tensions were further heightened when the Sri Lankan government declared Buddhism the national religion. The Tamils are primarily Hindu although Christianity and Islam are also practiced in Sri Lanka. The Council on Foreign Relation reports, “their religion (most are Hindu) and Tamil language set them apart from the four-fifths of Sri Lankans who are Sinhalese—members of a largely Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking ethnic group. When Sri Lanka was ruled as Ceylon by the British, most Sri Lankans regarded the Tamil minority as collaborators with imperial rule and resented the Tamil’s perceived preferential treatment.” In the following decades the Sinhalese engaged in continued acts of chauvinism at the expense of Tamils, which helped precipitate war.
LTTE’s core mission was to create a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils. To achieve this they used violence ruthlessly. Among their many acts of violence was the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India. Other assassinations include Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Member of Parliament Neelan Thiruchelvam, Industry Minister C.V. Goonaratne, Highway Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Nation-Building Minister D. M. Dassanayake, and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. A notable failed attempt was the suicide bomb attack in 1999 that wounded Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Sri Lankan President.
Since 1983 an estimated 70,000 Sri Lankans were killed as a result of the conflict. Questions remain over what to do next now that the war is officially over. Progressive steps including a humanitarian component have been suggested. A longer-term challenge is how to address Tamil concerns and achieve the effective reintegration of the Tamil people into the Sri Lankan nation after decades of atrocities from both sides. To achieve this, the Sri Lankan government will reportedly focus on relief, rehabilitation, resettlement, and reconciliation.
Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Therefore, the international community has little ability to force the Sri Lankan government to quicken the pace of integration for Tamils in refugee camps or afford the Tamils basic human rights. NGOs like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have attempted to monitor the humanitarian situation of the Tamils but have on many occasions been denied access to them.
The 1951 Refugee Convention specifically addresses the fact that the remaining Tamils have been sequestered in refugee camps awaiting their fate. Meaning, a reasonable time in which to join the wider Sri Lankan society or move back into their former areas of residence. According to the Convention, “Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence to move freely within its territory, subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances.”
On October 9th, 2009 Robert Blake, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs met with 16 representatives of the Sri Lankan-American community and media. Mr. Blake suggested that independent political parties must be allowed to register, the congestion of remaining Tamil refugee camps must be eased and humanitarian organizations must have full access to the region. He also said that although some progress has been made, much more needs to be done.
The issues of camp congestion and the fact that significant numbers of Tamils remaining in the region had been effectively left in limbo are being addressed and the results are encouraging. However, the large numbers of Tamils hamper the government’s efforts to assimilate the Tamils into the rest of Sri Lankan society. Furthermore, the LTTE had effectively used civilians as human shields in the closing months of the conflict, adding to the sheer number of civilian deaths. About 300,000 Tamils had been living in closed camps that were cut off from visits by journalists and NGOs.
Some estimates place the remaining numbers of Tamils at the camps to be around 100,000. In order for the remaining Tamils to leave the camps to settle elsewhere in the country, the government has instituted lengthy background checks and taken other measures to ensure that no rebels still remain among the Tamil populations. Further delay is caused by the landmines planted by LTTE, which must be cleared. Statelessness is not unique to Sri Lanka. Countless groups around the world are essentially stateless or without a country of their own. Other international examples include Palestinians living in horrific refugee camps, Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, Eritreans residing in Ethiopia, Rohingyas refugees in Bangladesh, and Bedouin tribes throughout the Middle East. Statelessness will not go away easily.
The international system is made up of states, bodies and institutions that perpetuate the interests of states over groups of individuals. When possible, these institutions will extend protections to stateless people but within the context of state sovereignty. The UN is sensitive to power politics and will not act to extend rights to a group of individuals if the host country disapproves of such measures. The UN would never act unilaterally to protect ethnic Tamils for fear of upsetting Sri Lanka, just as the UN does not address the ongoing problems on American Indian reservations for fear of upsetting the United States.
The solution must come from within. Much work remains before assimilation of Tamils into Sri Lankan society can be completed. Endemic racism and cultural norms must be abandoned in order for Tamils to consider themselves an integral part of Sri Lanka. Increased equality in education, jobs, and religious freedoms are required for the two groups to live in peace in one nation. The irony of the Tamils’ situation is that by losing the war against the government they lost the leverage they had in order to affect change. P. Balasundarampillai of the Jaffna Citizens Committee suggests, “All of this armed struggle, so many dead and wounded, for what? In many spheres of public life our role is very much reduced. Economically we are weak, and politically we are weak.”
Mr. Balasundarampillai appears to be right. The 2010 presidential election between incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gen. Sarath Fonseka who led the military efforts against the LTTE barely reflected the plight of the Tamils. Mr. Rajapaksa easily won reelection but has refused to address several steps that could go a long way towards reconciliation with the Tamil minority. The first is federalism and the second is creation of a large Tamil state combining provinces in the east and north. Addressing these issues would go a long way towards eradicating the potential of future armed conflict with the Tamil minority.
Additionally, Tamils must accept their role as an ethnic minority in a largely Sinhalese and Buddhist nation. They must also accept the finality of the LTTE’s defeat in a long military campaign. In future, the Tamil community should attempt to advance its place in society peacefully, especially if the Sinhalese majority offers tolerance and the chance of increased assimilation. There exists a real risk that in ten or twenty years, renewed bloodshed between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government could break out again. It is often said that history has a tendency to repeat itself. Addressing the statelessness of Tamils in Sri Lanka would offer hope in this case that it won’t.