In May 2009, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa greeted his victory over the Tamil Tigers with the chilling announcement: ‘We have removed the word “minorities” from our vocabulary.’ This statement has proved something of a blueprint for Rajapaksa’s post-war presidency, which has heralded an era of rampant ethnic-chauvinism.
Sri Lanka’s minority communities have seen political power and rights systematically removed, and none more so than the defeated Tamils.
Human rights violations and ethnic discrimination are rife. The mistreatment and torture of returned Tamil asylum seekers, the destruction of Tamil memorials and graveyards and the rise of Sinhalese-nationalist vigilante groups have all received attention in the international press.
But perhaps the most damaging of trends has passed all but unremarked: the insidious disempowerment of the Tamil community in their historic homelands, the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Government-sponsored initiatives to alter the demographic composition of this region have seen a major uptick in recent years. The state has annexed and placed under military control vast areas of land under the shady premise of ‘national security’. These land grabs have displaced longstanding Tamil communities. Scarcely any compensation or resettlement options have been offered, which has seriously undermined livelihoods and food security.
The land seizures have gone hand in hand with a process known as ‘Sinhalization’ – the state-facilitated settlement of Sinhalese people and imposition of Sinhalese culture in traditional Tamil areas. Thousands of Sinhalese are reported to have been settled in the North and Eastern Provinces in 2013 alone and there is evidence of the regime using employment and housing opportunities to incentivize these moves. This has been accompanied by changing the names of streets and villages and the destruction of Hindu temples and shrines where Tamils worshipped – as well as churches and mosques. The government is erecting Buddhist temples and monuments in their place.
Parallel to this ethno-religious colonization, Sri Lanka’s central government has shifted control over policing, land and economics away from the provincial councils. By doing this, it is actively reneging on its constitutional obligation to devolve power to the provinces, and denying Tamils even the slightest autonomy.
Given that Tamil self-determination lay at the very core of Sri Lanka’s quarter-century civil war, the significance of this move cannot be overstated. This is the Rajapaksa regime revelling in the most crude and cruel triumphalism.