Sri Lanka: Separatists Or Minorities?

On October 20, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, urged the government of Sri Lanka not to lose momentum gained by the new administration in 2015, and show its commitment to minority rights through concrete action.

“In order to achieve peaceful co-existence after the long devastating civil war, a comprehensive, well-planned and well-coordinated truth, reconciliation, healing and accountability process must take place, and it cannot be done overnight,” Izsák-Ndiaye said at the end of her visit to the country.

“At the same time, the Government must put in place some urgent, important, and concrete measures to clearly demonstrate its political will and commitment to better protect the dignity, identity, equality, and right to participation in all walks of life, of Sri Lanka’s minorities,” Izsák-Ndiaye emphasized.

During her ten-day mission to Sri Lanka, Izsák-Ndiaye consulted a large number of minority representatives across the country, including Sri Lankan and Up-Country Tamils, Muslims, Hindus, Burghers, Christians, Telugus, Veddas, Malays, and Sri Lankan Africans.

Izsák-Ndiaye commended the Sri Lankan government for the important progress it has made towards adopting critical laws and policies and in strengthening institutions to better protect human and minority rights.

“However, challenges remain,” she said, noting that among the most pressing and emotive issues, especially for the Tamil and Muslim communities, were disappeared persons, return of occupied land, release of security-related detainees, as well as demilitarization.

“Educational curriculum must ensure teaching about Sri Lanka’s diversity, as a source of strength, and about the different cultural, ethnic and religious identity of its population groups to foster deeper understanding,” she added.

Ahinca, a 27-year-old Colombo resident told The Diplomat that she wants to ask the Special Rapporteur if she knows the history of her country and its problems. Ahinca says Izsák-Ndiaye should think about the unity of the country, not protect those “who are the separatists and want to divide Sri Lanka into pieces challenging its unity.”

A Sri Lankan official, speaking to The Diplomat, pointed out that before discussing this issue it is crucial to understand the history of the country. “We were divided and ruled by the British. [The] Tamil minority had prominence because that was one way that the British could suppress the majority. After independence Tamil elite politicians always struggled to gain that prominence back and never agreed to the building of a common Sri Lankan national identity. They are still against it. This is what the problem is.”

“These terrorists try to bring all kinds of people around and prove that minorities have a problem in Sri Lanka,” the official said. “But among ordinary people we don’t have such a problem. If you come to Colombo or any city in the country (except North) you will see how the majority and minorities coexist happily. There is not a problem between ordinary people. In the North you won’t see it because northern politicians never let the [S]inhalese and [M]uslim people who were chased out of North by the LTTE go back there after the end of the war. They want to show that North is only Tamil.”

The Sri Lankan official said that ordinary Tamils supported the Sri Lankan government, but those who were fighting with government forces are LTTE terrorists. “Ordinary Tamils are our citizens, they were with the government, being engaged in the Army, foreign service, civil service, politics,” he said.

Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’), a Tamil separatist group, was formed in 1975, demanding independence from Sri Lanka. The group operated a civilian government. In May 2009, the LTTE was defeated.

According to research from the Minority Rights Group, despite the fact the war is over, Tamils and Muslims are still living in harsh conditions, dealing with significant economic marginalization. Meanwhile, militarism remains prevalent. Many minority representatives interviewed by the group said that since the end of war, the government has done little to credibly identify and address the root causes of the conflict, despite calls by local minority political parties and many foreign governments for a political settlement acceptable to Tamils and Muslims. All respondents highlighted the lack of an impartial effort to work towards justice, accountability, and reconciliation.

Across the region, many members of Tamil and Muslim communities remain displaced, living in IDP camps or resettled to areas where they have not been provided with adequate housing and have limited livelihood opportunities in violation of international standards. Parts of the region are still designated as High Security Zones (HSZ), meaning that former residents in these areas cannot return.

Cholpon Orozobekova for The Diplomat