Contextual Content

Roots of Sri Lankan conflict

R. Cheran says that the roots of the conflict go back to the formation of the state after independence when Tamils were kept out and their rights were not respected.


Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, JOURNALIST, TRNN: Thousands of Tamils in the Diaspora have been protesting calling for a ceasefire in the – North-East of Sri Lnaka. The protests have continued in many cities this week including Sydney, Geneva, London, Washington, and Toronto. Several hunger strikes are also underway. Recent video released by War Without Witness in Sri Lanka depicts the attacks in Vanni, a so called “Safe Zone”. They say 44 people were killed and over 65 injured in an attack by Sri Lankan government forces. There have been charges that the LTTE is also repsonible for attacks on civilians in the area. Independent journalists have been not allowed into the region. The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations, John Holmes, said “that a full-scale long-term ceasefire is unlikely” at this time. Calling for a temporary humanitarian lull, Holmes said, decisive action by the Government, the Tamil Tigers and the international community, is necessary before it is too late for thousands of civilians trapped in the area. Holmes said, that this will allow aid workers and medical supplies to get in and for those who wish to get out of the area, can do so. Holmes emphasized that if the Tamil Tigers truly have the best interests of the Tamil people at heart, they should contribute to ending the unnecessary civilian suffering. I’m joined by Dr. R. Cheran, who’s a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Windsor. He was formerly the deputy editor of The Saturday Review in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He was also a founding member of the free media movement in Sri Lanka. Thank you for joining us again, Cheran.


PERIES: Cheran, in the last segment we spoke about the Tamil nationalist aspirations facilitated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. We’re also talking about a Sinhala nationalist aspiration of maintaining and keeping power in Sri Lanka, not willing to share this. This has been a long war, over 30 years now. What is the context?

CHERAN: it is very important to understand the current war in Sri Lanka is one of the most neglected wars in the international arena. And second, this war has taken more than 200,000 civilian casualties which has never been recorded.

PERIES: So how do you know? If it’s not been recorded, how do you know there’s 200,000 casualties?

CHERAN: Well, there’s two respected medical professional, one working at Harvard University, and the other one is Washington University. They did a research on the number of civilian casualties in the Sri Lankan violence, and their tally is 215,000 three years ago. And then we—while we—I have been working [inaudible] we also came out with our own tally of the number of civilian casualties up until 1985. And then there are official records. The government officially claims that they have lost 24,000 soldiers, and the LTTE officially claimed that they have lost, you know, 24,000 soldiers. So you can add up all those components. In fact, if we look at the daily casualty rate in the Vanni region of Sri Lanka, between 100 and 150 people, civilians, are getting killed on a daily basis. So this is a huge humanitarian tragedy. But the point that why we—how come we ended up in this kind of a situation or scenario is really important. So Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948. So in the post-independent era, the Sri Lankan state has become a majoritarian state representing only the majority community, that is, the Sinhalese community, in Sri Lanka. So they have effectively marginalized the minorities in the state formation process. So that has resulted in the severe degree of alienation of minorities from the state. So this is a kind of a dominant attitude that the Tamils always put forward and there is some substance to it if their peaceful advocacy did not work in Sri Lanka for equal rights for Tamils. So in the late ’70s, various militant groups came into being, not just the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But at some point in the history say in 1985, there were almost 48 Tamil militant groups with various kind of ideology, from Tamil nationalism to national liberation to Marxist to Maoist, you know, all kinds of groups that had been advocating different kind of ideologies, but all in largely under the rubric of, you know, the liberation struggle and the separation. So the government response for it, instead of addressing all those issues, the government response was to use the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the emergency regulations to crush all kinds of dissent. So Sri Lanka is—perhaps it is not a straight-up exception, but the exception has become the rule, except in the sense of continuing the governance by emergency is the result in Sri Lanka. So there are very few years that Sri Lanka was not under rule of emergency. So this is the context within which the [inaudible] you know, nationalistic war is being played out.

PERIES: So, Cheran, will the Tamil people, at this moment in the conflict, be satisfied with any other model, rather than a separate state?

CHERAN: I very much doubt, because I think the Tamils have come to a point where the psychological and emotional separation has become a true reality, even the nature of carnage and catastrophe. I very much doubt whether the coexistence of these two groups are possible, even though, you know, I must admit, after being in Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda as a researcher, where you could feel and sense the kind of ethnic hatred, that is not the case in Sri Lanka, because I think [inaudible] we can still convince [inaudible] Sinhalese people that the reasonable solution is possible. But the difficulty there is the government of Sri Lanka prevents any kind of independent information reaching the Sinhalese population. So the point is that there is no room or space for reconciliation. That is why I’m saying that the only possible way to think about are a form of confederation, but maybe in the long run they might come together. But at this point, you know, I’m very doubtful with any kind of solution.

PERIES: Is that what the solution for Sri Lanka is, some sort of a federated state that is not acceptable to the Tamil people?

CHERAN: No. Frankly, the so-called international community, and also the Co-Chairs—the US, Japan, Norway—you know, they are, frankly, wrong. I mean, they did not get the real issue in the country. They simply think, you know, that by tacitly supporting the elimination of the Tigers, they should be able to convince the Tamil people that, you know, you can settle for something else. But that is not really going to work, because the issues of the Tamil people predates the LTTE. But the failure of the international community is to understand the nuances of this current conflict. That is why, you know, I would strongly argue the international community and the government of India, they tacitly support the current government of Sri Lanka in its military onslaught, hoping that sooner rather than later the government will be able to crack the LTTE. But the point they are missing is that, you know, LTTE may be crushed, but as long as the fundamental rights, fundamental problems remains unsolved, there will be another organization, and the will of the Tamil people to fight for equality, dignity, and self-determination will go on.

PERIES: In our next segment, let’s talk about what the role of the international community is in order to bring a peaceful solution to the conflict. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.