Lanka’s “Border Villages” Send Out Mixed Signals on Ethnic Issue
Research on inter-ethnic relations during conflict
COLOMBO: In Sri Lanka, a “border village” is a settlement located at the cross-roads of Sinhala and Tamil/Muslim majority districts in North and East Sri Lanka. Typically, they are ethnically mixed, which make them ideal for research on inter-ethnic relations during conflicts.
A new study entitled Forgotten Victims of War: A Border Village Study by Marisa de Silva, Nishan Fonseka and Farah Mihlar, shines a light on various aspects of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict through the study of “border villages” on the periphery of Sinhalese and Tamil cum Muslim districts in the North and East of the island.
The picture that emerges from the monograph is a mixed one. There are problems still to be recognized and attended to even ten years after the end of a brutal war between government forces and Tamil separatist militants.
And yet, there is light at end of the tunnel because the three communities, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, living cheek by jowl in the border villages, do not see things in black and white but in shades of grey.
Their perspectives are not all uniformly negative or uniformly positive. This leaves room for change one way or the other or the better or worse. Thus the study in question gives room for hope as well as despair.
Done for the Colombo-based Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, the study says that despite the end of the war more than ten years ago, ethnic and religious divides in Sri Lanka “remain strong and insufficiently resolved in some areas and contexts, with the potential to develop into small scale conflicts or fuel existing national conflicts.”
“Peace building and reconciliation are not occurring in an organized and structured manner at the local level, though some communities are working on co-existence. Media and social media are playing a damaging role in strengthening divisions,” it points out.
Language difference has been a major barrier to reconciliation, the authors say. It affects delivery of governmental services.
“State sector services such as hospitals, police, local government, and private sector ones such as banks, continue to operate in Sinhalese, in verbal and written forms, obstructing Tamils from accessing at times very basic services.”
“Many Tamils can converse at some level in Sinhalese but, do not have sufficient language (skills) to, for example, explain complex health problems or read and complete forms,” the report says.
Despite the end of the armed conflict, the Tamils feel discriminated against by the government, the study reports.
“Tamils feel strongly that they are discriminated against by government and local government authorities in the allocation of resources which they say first go to the Sinhalese and then to Muslims. They also referred to being discriminated against in terms of employment opportunities and having less access to a basic standard of education.”
In Aariyammankeni in Trincomlee district, most staff in the government offices are Muslims though most of the villages in the Division are Tamil and only one is a Muslim village.
However, some said that it would not be fair to say that all Sinhalese discriminate against the Tamils. These people blame the Sinhalese politicians and not the Sinhalese people as such.
But the incontrovertible fact is that Tamils feel “powerless” to raise the issues especially Sinhalese colonization with State help. The Tamils point out that in Mukathuvaaram, there were no Sinhalese before 1984. No Sinhalese owned land. But now they have houses, a school, and a Buddhist temple too, the locals point out.
According to the researchers, Tamil-Muslim relations were mostly conflict-free. Many Tamils were aware of the Islamophobia that is spreading in Sri Lanka and the anti-Muslim riots in recent times. They openly expressed solidarity with the Muslims. Tamils also acknowledged that Muslims had protected them during the war. In the economically backward village of Neenarkerny, the Tamils had received charity from a neighboring Muslim village.
Some commented that Muslims had gained more post-war resources and services from the government than the Tamils. But the general view was that Muslims were only concerned with their own economic progress and not the rights of the minorities as such.
Tamils of the border villages complained felt that they have no avenues of protest. A Tamil from Soruwil said: “In the North and East, as the majority are the Tamils, they can protest and demand their rights. However, here the Sinhalese will chase us; they (in reference to the Sinhalese) are the majority, we can’t ask for our rights or protest.”
Muslims Caught in Crossfire
The Muslims have their own grievances. According to them they were in an “unusually difficult position” during the war, having been caught between the LTTE militants and the Sri Lankan Army.
“While they attributed most of the violations they suffered to the LTTE, they also explained how they were persecuted and harassed by both the LTTE and military on suspicion of supporting the other. One person from each family was expected to go with the army on rounds and help dig up bunkers and engage in Shramadhana. They would not pay for any of these services. If anyone failed to go, the army would beat up the men in the family. The army often told us not to speak with the Tamils. Similarly if LTTE observed us talking to the army or the Sinhalese, they would beat up the villages. We were crushed by both sides,” said a Muslim from Selvanagar.
After the April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday bombings by nine Jihadists, Muslims have been facing Islamophobic campaigns and attacks. After the war ended in 2009, a number of Muslims have lost their original lands to the military or to State development projects, including archeological projects, the study says.
Failing To Walk The Talk
Views on post-war justice vary from ethnic group to ethnic group. While the Tamils want accountability mechanisms to be set up and those guilty of war crimes punished, the Muslims want compensation. The Sinhalese feel that with the destruction of the LTTE, justice has been rendered to all.
As the study notes, successive governments have failed to set up the promised war crimes accountability mechanisms. The Independent international Judicial Mechanism on alleged war crimes has not been set up. The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) started working only recently. It is only collecting data which had already been collected a number of times earlier by various other bodies. There is no word about compensation or reparations yet as the appropriate institutions have not been set up.
Although the Tamils have more grievances, all three communities lacked faith in the State’s ability or willingness to render justice. This has serious implications for inter-ethnic reconciliation as the State is expected to render justice.
The study comes down heavily on the role of the media. According to it, the national mainstream electronic media and the social media are clearly playing a role in influencing and prejudicing people along ethnic lines. It even names the TV stations.
“The ethnic divisions and previously identified sense of anger and frustration, in the isolated, marginalized context of these localities (the border villages), could lead to small-scale conflicts and could undoubtedly be mobilized for mob attacks and ethnic violence,” the study warns.
Glimmer of Hope
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Even though tension and division were evident between all three communities, there was no indication of a return to conflict or a new one emerging,” the report said.
“The evidence of communities’ ability through common ‘victimhood’ to transcend the association of the ethnic/religious ‘other’ from the perpetrator and reach out to understand their suffering and grievances. In this ability to understand, empathise and feel for the ‘other’ lies tremendous hope for reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka,” the report said.
The report has called for the speedy implementation of the resolutions of the UNHRC co-sponsored by Sri Lanka. Opening of bi-lingual schools in the border villages has been recommended to build a sense of community by enabling inter-ethnic communication and interaction.
The study says that formulation of development and reconciliation schemes should be done with inputs from local grass-roots level stakeholders. And development works should benefit all communities.