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Georg Evers {*}

After the Civil War

The Wounds are not yet Closed in Sri Lanka


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2009, P. 588-593
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the South Asian island state of Sri Lanka now a 25-year civil war between the government and the fighters of the Tamil minority came to a close. The churches, too, were affected by the division of the country. After the Civil War significant secondary problems remain; the situation is exceptionally instable.


On 19 May 2009 first the national television in Sri Lanka and then the international media reported the death of the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who had been killed in the battles around the last stronghold of LTTE on the banks of the Lagoon Nathikadal. His dead body was shown, dressed with a khaki uniform.

With the death of its leader and the loss of the last positions held by the LTTE in the north of the island, the history of Tamil Eelam as an independent territory dominated by Tamils in Sri Lanka came to a bloody end. There were celebrations all over the country when the news of the death of Prabhakaran and of his high commanders became known, in which fireworks were lit and the end of the civil war and the death of the LTTE leaders was celebrated with rice puddings and sweets.


The Ethnic Trouble Began Shortly After Independence

On the part of the Sinhalese these expressions of joy were mostly spontaneous, and not organized by the government. They clearly show the tremendous extent of the constant threat to the population, which was exposed to the terror attacks of LTTE militants. Among the Tamils, however, there were no signs of joy but rather fear of the future.

The nearly 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka has a long history. Sri Lanka, which is often named "Pearl of the Indian Ocean", is actually an island state. With its geography, its forests, agricultural potential, its richness in natural resources, its tourist attractions, not least with its educational system and high literacy rate it could be a leading country in Asia.

The ethnic problems, however, began shortly after gaining independence in 1948. In 1949 the Parliament deprived the so-called plantation Tamils of citizenship and started their repatriation to India. Those Tamils had under British colonial rule come from South India in the country in order to work in the tea plantations. Supported by the chauvinism of the Sinhalese majority, in 1956 the government of President Bandaranaike passed the "Sinhala-Only Act", by which Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese majority, was declared the only official national language. The most vociferous proponents of the "Sinhala-only policy" came from the ranks of Buddhists who had always seen in English as language of the country and of instruction also a hidden instrument of Westernization and of the Christian mission.

The one-sided orientation towards Sinhala, a language used only in Sri Lanka led to a general weakening of the level of education, because there was a lack of technical literature in Sinhala, the technical terminology often had still to be established, and the circle of professionals involved in the academic discourse was very limited.



However, the effects of this one-sided orientation towards Sinhala as the national language were most serious for the relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils. In response to the unilateral language policy many Tamils chose to emigrate and thus laid the basis for the about one million Tamil Diaspora, which came into being in Canada, Britain, Germany, India, Australia and several other countries and which in the following decades financially and ideologically supported especially the extreme policies of the LTTE.

Already at the adoption of the "Sinhala-Only Act" critics pointed out that this would necessarily lead to a split and the emergence of a two-state movement, while the introduction of Tamil as an equal national language in addition to Sinhala would have contributed to the development of a single nation. So when in 1978 Tamil did get the rank of a second national language, it was too late. A few years later there were anti-Tamil pogroms, and the violent clashes between the two ethnic communities started, which lasted almost three decades and found a temporary end only in May 2009 with the extermination of the LTTE and its leaders. In recent decades by the chauvinism of the Sinhalese majority Sri Lanka has been turned into a Sinhala Buddhist State, in which the other ethnic and religious minorities have only a limited legal status.

The bloody clashes had started in July 1983 with an ambush by the LTTE in Jaffna, in which thirteen government soldiers lost their lives, all of them were members of the Sinhalese majority. The LTTE had been founded by Vellupillai Prabhakaran in May 1976 and replaced the Organization of the "Tamil New Tigers" (TNT) founded in 1974. From the outset the LTTE raised the claim to be the only effective and thus the only legitimate representative of the Tamil interests; it fought against other Tamil organizations that would not acknowledge this rank.

In response to the ambush in Jaffna there were pogroms against Tamils and Tamil facilities in Colombo, where hundreds of Tamils lost their lives and even more of them their possessions and livelihood. More than 100,000 Tamils had to leave Colombo for good. What followed were military clashes between the LTTE and government forces; this "First War for Eelam" could be ended by the deployment of Indian peacekeeping forces. LTTE's expectations that India one-sidedly would fully be committed to the Tamil interests were soon disappointed. The Indian troops, which were initially welcomed by the Tamil population as "saviours", became now "enemies".

When in 1990 the Indian troops were pulled out, after a brief lull the fighting between the Sinhalese and Tamils flared up in 1993 again. In this "Second War for Eelam" the LTTE made the first major territorial gains in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. In 1994 President Chandrika Kumaratunga once again undertook a peace initiative, but it failed. In October 1995 she ordered the resumption of fighting - the "Third War for Eelam". It resulted in the recapturing of Jaffna, which was vacated by LTTE after prolonged resistance; on that occasion the entire civilian population was forcibly evacuated. Prabhakaran retaliated in 1996 with the conquest of the important military base Mullaitivvu and gained thus an operation base for his navy.


Signs of Internal Disintegration of the LTTE

In 2000 the LTTE succeeded in conquering the Elephant Pass, which controls the access to Jaffna. In early 2000, at the height of his power, Vellupillai Prabhakaran had in northern Sri Lanka the region of Wanni, i.e. the districts Mullaitivvu, Killinochchi and parts of Vavuniya and in the east Batticoloa and great parts of Trincomalee brought under the control of the LTTE. In this 16,000 square miles area, which comprised nearly one quarter of Sri Lanka's land surface, the LTTE had its own army, maintained its own police force, raised taxes, had established a separate jurisdiction and issued its visas at the border to the government-controlled territory. At the same time, the LTTE had a propaganda department that was used very effectively for information and often also for misinformation.

Through the support of emigrated Tamils around the world and the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, the LTTE had got strong international allies. But the brutality with which it eliminated all other Tamil organizations in Sri Lanka and its numerous attacks on politicians and opponents in Sri Lanka and elsewhere prevented that the LTTE was able to rid itself internationally of the character of a terrorist organization and to be acknowledged as a national liberation movement. After all, the LTTE is regarded as "inventor" of the suicide attack, which it for the first time practiced on 21 May 1991 outside Sri Lanka by assassinating the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in order to "punish" the Indian government for its intervention in Sri Lanka.



This assassination attempt would later turn out to be a big mistake, because the LTTE thus lost for ever the support of its struggle by the Indian Government and the sympathies of the Indian public. With the start of the international fight against terror after September 11 2001, the LTTE was classed by more and more countries as a "terrorist organization", its accounts were seized and its ability to work drastically reduced. In addition, the LTTE, which had been led and kept together by Prabhakaran with an iron fist, showed signs of internal disintegration, when Prabhakaran broke with Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, better known by his fighting name of "Colonel Karuna".

Prabhakaran has significantly been weakened by the separation from Karuna, the commander on the Eastern Front in the district of Trincomalee, who left the LTTE with 6,000 of his fighters in March 2004. Karuna was one of the fighters of the first hour, and was for a long time one of the bodyguards of Prabhakaran. The reason for the rift was that Karuna had to realize that Prabhakaran did not want seriously to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government and to respect the cease-fire agreement accomplished by Norway's mediation. He recognized, as he later said, that Prabhakaran was no man of peace, he understood only to destroy but not to build. Karuna initially fled abroad. Because of a forged visa he spent some time in British prisons and then returned to Sri Lanka.


All Foreign Journalists had to Leave the Country

However, the ultimate decisive factor for the military defeat of the LTTE was the election victory of Mahinda Rajapakse, who in November 2005 was elected President of Sri Lanka. Already during the election campaign he had sharply rejected the idea that in Sri Lanka such thing as a divided fatherland could exist: one part for the Sinhalese and one for the Tamils. Rajapakse decided to undertake all necessary efforts to destroy militarily the LTTE after the peace talks had failed. They had begun in February 2006 in Geneva by the agency of Norway but were then boycotted by the LTTE at the next appointment in May of that year. His decision was confirmed by the suicide attack on the Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, in April 2006, where twenty seven people were killed and Fonseka was seriously wounded. Another important step that led to a military victory over the LTTE in the "Fourth War for Eelam" was the appointment of his brother Gotabaya Rajapakse as Minister of Defense. After 20 years service in the Army he had emigrated in the United States, and when Gotabaya Rajapakse actually only returned to Sri Lanka in order to "visit" his brother on the occasion of his election as president he was so to speak "conscripted", and was appointed minister of defence. Together with the recovered commander-in-chief of the Army he developed the strategy to weaken and to destroy in the end the LTTE by deploying small task forces backed by tanks and armored trucks, and by the strategy of simultaneously fighting on several fronts.

The battles against the LTTE, which lasted from July 2006 until May 2009, were marked by great severity. The Sri Lankan army was not so much interested in conquering territory, what mattered was clearly the physical extermination of the LTTE fighters and of its leaders. Probably as a justification for the crackdown on the LTTE, in the months after the victory the national media constantly broadcasted flashbacks to the various crimes of violence by the LTTE, in order once again to underline the dangerousness of those "terrorists". The Sri Lankan government and the press allied with it condemned the one-sided reporting in the Western media, which insinuated that the Sri Lankan army violated human rights and said nothing about the crimes of violence of the LTTE. One can naturally wonder how this imbalance came about.

After all, when in the final battle against the LTTE the actions of the military were in full swing all independent foreign journalists and staff of NGOs and the Red Cross had to leave the combat zone on the orders of the government Rajapakse. An independent coverage was thus made impossible by the government. Domestic and foreign journalists who researched into and wrote about the violation of human rights, as e.g. "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions of people, were defamed as supporters of the LTTE, hampered in their work and intimidated. The censors of the government prohibited any kind of reporting on issues of internal security and national integrity. Thus, for example, it was not allowed to publish reports on losses of government troops.

In just the past four years, fourteen journalists had to pay with their lives because of their commitment to human rights and her criticism of the government. The most famous among them was Lasantha Wickrematunge, founder and chief editor of the newspaper "Sunday Leader", who in his reports had denounced the excessive cruelty of the military suppression of the LTTE. In January 2009 he was shot dead in broad daylight in Colombo. A text of him was published posthumously, where he describes his murder as an inevitable consequence of his loyalty to an independent reporting and quite clearly holds the government accountable for his death.



Many foreign politicians and organizations have called upon Sri Lanka to allow independent observers into the country in order to clarify the human rights violations.


The Civil War has Left Deep Scars

Sri Lanka is currently in a state of relief that the civil war has ended. On the other hand, there are uncertainty, confusion and anxious expectation as to how the living together of Tamils and Sinhalese in the country will go on. One would actually gladly believe the government that the war is over and the era of reconciliation and of a new beginning has started. But there are still 200,000 "internal refugees" who are in camps under inhumane conditions waiting that they can return to their old dwellings.

The Government argues that high-level leaders and other fighters of the LTTE are still hiding in the camps. If they were allowed to return, they would arm themselves and begin the fight anew. The postponement of the refugees' return is also justified by pointing to the necessary clean-up in the former combat zones, where still many arms caches and vast minefields exist. This work is difficult, since neither government forces nor the LTTE have reliably recorded where the up to a million mines were laid. Another problem, which eventually will probably be more serious, is that the government has begun with expropriations in the areas formerly controlled by the LTTE. Supposedly, military personnel and their families are indemnified by this land grab, whereas one creates at the same time a new potential for violence.

The years of civil war have left deep scars. The mistrust between the two ethnic groups of Sinhalese and Tamils is deeply rooted, and many wounds are still open and will remain so for a long time. The Prevention of Terrorist Acts (PTA), which in 1979 at first was adopted temporarily and is since 1982 valid without limit of time, gives the safety authorities special powers that allow them, without a court order, to arrest, interrogate, torture and often even to kill persons, without fear of having to stand trial, because another law guarantees them immunity.

With reference to the PTA and later adopted exceptions in Sri Lanka in the decades-long civil war thousands of people have "vanished" without a trace; that is, after arrest, interrogation and torture they have been murdered and buried or have been victims of "extrajudicial executions". For the time being, the Parliament has extended the state of emergency, which gives far-reaching powers to the army in its hunt for terrorists.

Between January 2008 and the end of the fighting in May 2009 the Sri Lankan army had 4050 fatalities. On the side of the LTTE the number of persons killed must be several times higher, without including the civilian casualties. The government has not yet submitted exact data on the deaths of the "other" side; it was probably not able to present them. The total number of victims of the civil war is collectively estimated at 75 000 people, soldiers, activists and civilians of all ages.

In the north and northeast, in the areas dominated formerly by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan military, which consists almost entirely of Sinhalese, are seen as "foreign" occupiers. The soldiers for their part continue to see the majority of Tamils as disguised terrorists. The slowly restored civil administration is mainly occupied by Sinhalese officials who neither speak Tamil nor understand the mentality of the population.

Have army and government gained too great a victory? The question may sound strange, but by their victory and the total annihilation of the LTTE the government has now no recognized and competent negotiating partner on the side of the Tamils. This state of affairs is first of all not the fault of the government. It was the LTTE that systematically fought and in the majority of cases also eliminated the rival Tamil organizations. The remaining Tamil organizations like the People's Liberation Organization for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) can only to a limited extent operate as representatives of the Tamil minority.

After the end of fighting, on 10 August 2009 in the north the first local elections took place. In Jaffna 22 per cent and in Vavuniya 70 per cent of the population that in the meantime has come back in the former war zones took part in them. In Jaffna the party with close relations to the government has won the elections, whereas in Vavuniya the Tamil National Alliance gained the majority. That both the central government and the representative of the Tamils claimed the victory shows that the mutual distrust continues. The persistent attempts to go steps to reconciliation and to give jointly positive signs are almost always hampered or forcibly prevented by the fanatics on both sides.

This is shown e.g. by the cultural festival in October 2009 in Colombo. It was jointly organized by Singhalese and Tamil artists who exhibited their works and led a peaceful dialogue with each other. Radical Sinhalese groups reacted with violence on this event of goodwill and understanding and tried to destroy the exhibition.



There is at least a national team for the national sport of cricket, where Sinhala and Tamil athletes together play for the glory of Sri Lanka as their common fatherland.


Separation in the Training of Priests

The fact that both Sinhalese and Tamils are among their members actually distinguishes the Christian churches in Sri Lanka. This should rather qualify them for contributing in particular to the national unity and the understanding between the ethnic groups. But during the long years of civil war the churches were only to a very limited extent able to use this potential. Anyhow, in most of the church organizations Sinhalese and Tamil Christians are working together at the national level. Within the Catholic Church this applies also to the larger religious communities the members of which belong to the two ethnic groups. Thus, the Jesuit Province with approximately 100 members has in equal shares Sinhalese and Tamils. Attempts of some Jesuits to establish two separate provinces, one for the Sinhalese and one for Tamils, have been decidedly rejected by the majority.

However, the development of the training of priests in the Catholic Church took a different course. In the mid-nineties the until then joint education of seminarians in the National Seminary Ampitiya in Kandy was given up. From then on the Tamil seminarians got their education in the newly founded seminary of Jaffna. The chaos of war in the Jaffna peninsula, however, has repeatedly hindered the training of seminarians or even brought to a standstill. If one wants to justify the decision to educate separately the Singhalese and Tamil seminarians, then one can argue that in the now two seminaries the separation enabled the use of Sinhala or Tamil instead of English as language of education, and that the development of a theological terminology in Sinhala or Tamil contributes to the inculturation.

The experience during the civil war has shown that it is difficult, if not even impossible to stand one's ground as an impartial mediator between the two ethnic groups. After a short time, both groups alike regarded the intermediaries as partisan. When in the final phase of the civil war the Catholic Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, wanted as a mediator to intervene in the conflict, the Singhalese chauvinists soon called him sympathizer and supporter of the LTTE, whereas the Tamil extremists simultaneously libeled him as agent of the government. Here, the fact that he was attacked by both camps should rather have served as proof of his impartiality.

It denotes the state within the Catholic Bishops' Conference that only the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Duleep de Chickera defended Bishop Joseph in public. The well-known theologian Aloysius Pieris SJ warns the Christian churches against using one-sidedly the "language of human rights" in their commitment to social justice, peace and understanding. As correct and vital as the referring to human rights was, if you rigidly insisted on observing them, this would often be seen as an accusation and attack, and then remained ineffective. The one who wants to bring about peace between the ethnic groups has in the first place to fight rather the prejudices in his own group, and he must try to communicate the views of the other side and why they think they had to act in the way as they do.


The Church has Joined in the General Rejoicing at the Victory Celebrations

During the war of extermination against the LTTE there were almost no protests by the Catholic bishops against the harsh military action, in which many civilians, too, became victims of acts of war. The public got thus necessarily the impression as if in the Bishops' Conference on the part of the Sinhalese bishops there was a lack of solidarity with their Tamil confrères. In an interview with "Kirche in Not" in May 2009 Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna said that his diocese was virtually wiped out, and 19 parishes were completely destroyed. The bishop was proud that his priests stayed with their faithful to the last moment. The artillery fire from both sides had cost the lives of about 20,000 people and 40,000 have been wounded.

It has an aftertaste and can hardly be regarded as a prophetic sign that the church leaders in the celebrations, initiated by the government in May 2009, joined in the general jubilation. By contrast, the behaviour of a number of priests may be regarded as a testimony of their responsibility as shepherds. They stay in the refugee camps with the people entrusted to their care and share their fate.

The government in turn seeks the support of the Catholic Church. This became evident on 10 August 2009 at the inauguration of the new Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith: also President Rajapakse took part and on that occasion underlined the contribution of the Catholic Church to the peace process and the development of the country. In front of more than 300,000 pilgrims Archbishop Ranjith used the day of the national pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine of Madhu on the feast of the Assumption in order to call upon the government to improve the desperate conditions under which the refugees live in the camps set up by the government and to do everything possible so that the displaced can return as quickly as possible to their villages.



In this context he stated, "Violence and war are not the right way to solve problems between people, especially if they are religious people."


    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In that capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.


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