Now is not the time to celebrate. The civil war in Sri Lanka, which since 1983 has been responsible for the deaths of more than 60,000 people (with a spike in the fatalities since January), a huge diaspora and the militarization of an entire generation of both Sinhalese and Tamil youth, is over. But as is often the case with civil wars - where groups have to live side by side after the violence has stopped - the hardest part is yet to come.
The UK's Guardian newspaper estimates that around 250,000 people are facing years in government camps before being allowed to return to their homes. Sri Lankan officials say that this is necessary in determining who among them is a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) member.
The Sri Lankan civil war and its aftermath, perhaps more than any other conflict, is going to force us to re-think what it means to be an insurgent, and to probe deeply into matters of forgiveness and reconciliation in addition to posing a number of important policy concerns. These questions may seem abstract, but they are critical to Sri Lankans and to the international community if the country is to move forward.
As Sankaran Krishna points out in Postcolonial Insecurities, at various times both Sri Lankan and Indian dominant discourses have painted Tamils as anti-national, enemies of larger moves towards a cultural awakening. The Sri Lankan government seems to be perpetuating this view of Tamils by effectively criminalizing all those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught between LTTE and government forces.
By treating all of them like full-fledged insurgents, the Sri Lankan government is communicating to Tamils that there is no place for them in a unified Sri Lanka, that they will always be outsiders. But this need not be the case. Constructivism can provide a useful lens for understanding the current situation in Sri Lanka because it gives us hope; hope that like their neighbors in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lankan Tamils can remain openly proud of their culture but still participate peacefully in national politics.
This cannot happen if the Sri Lankan government continues its policy of detaining Sri Lankan civilians because of their ethnicity. The binary distinctions of "insurgent/civilian" and "guilty/innocent" will prove useless in distinguishing between various members of Sri Lanka's diverse Tamil population. Are Tamils born and raised under LTTE control "insurgents" if they provided food to combatants, who formed the only real government they ever knew? Is having been compensated with the pay given to families of suicide bombers a mark of guilt? What about the role of current and former child soldiers? How can we deal with the complexity that surrounds notions of guilt for those who began killing when they were not even 18? Moving past the traditional notions of guilt and innocence will be crucial for the country to move on. Members of the LTTE who actively helped plan and participate in war crimes should be held accountable, as should government officials guilty of the same things.
What reconciliation can take place between two groups that have completely different collective memories of their experiences since independence? Again, we cannot afford to fall into the "binary trap" - assuming that Sri Lanka is either at war with itself, or that there will be instant peace. Co-existence is more realistic. Tamils and Sinhalese need to literally begin speaking the other’s language. Though unpalatable to many in Colombo and the international community, the LTTE's stated willingness to participate in the democratic process should be taken seriously, not rebuffed.
A comparison between India and Sri Lanka is tenuous given that the Dravidian movement was never an insurgency. But if we want Sri Lanka's future (if not it's past) to resemble India's, dealing with these difficult questions and crafting appropriate institutions will be necessary. India's federal model can take much (though not all) of the credit for the peaceful route taken by Dravidian parties. The Sri Lankan government needs to let go of the idea of a unitary state and realize that a federal solution is in order, one that recognizes Tamil rights and responsibilities as part of the larger Sri Lankan polity. Maybe then we can celebrate.
Alessandra Radicati is an MA student and teaching assistant at McGill University's Department of Political Science.
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