Opinion & Analysis

10 years on from Sri Lanka's civil war, old wounds reopen

Even before the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombings, problems were bubbling away beneath the surface, writes Sanjana Hattotuwa.

Ten years after the end of its civil war, Sri Lanka’s future is a blur. The country is reeling from terrorism and careening towards a vortex of tit-for-tat communal responses, guaranteeing more violence. Draconian emergency regulations enacted after Easter Sunday are likely to be extended indefinitely. The holy month of Ramadan, the celebration of Vesak (the most important festival in the year for Buddhists), the 10th anniversary of the end of the war and the presidential election are now magnets for an unprecedented brand of terrorism. Sri Lanka’s relationship with peace, justice and accountability was deeply fractured even before the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. It is now very difficult to see how the country can steer itself away from a dangerous cocktail of factors that, only a few will dare note, gave rise to war in the first place.

Geographic dissonance is a major issue. The difference post-war between the north and south of the country isn’t always visible. But even in 2019, the free or frank discussion of anything to do with the war in the north guarantees the heightened scrutiny of the Sri Lankan Army and intelligence officers. Destitute mothers of the disappeared, people fighting for their land, activists, academics, and anyone who participates in gatherings to remember those who died are all treated with the highest level of suspicion.

Perception versus reality

The north is projected as a land ripe for investment, development, tourism, travel and trade. Infrastructure and economics, we are told, are the only meaningful keys to post-war healing. Yet the entrenchment of the military in all aspects of daily life continues, entirely invisible to most in other parts of the country and beyond question or reproach. The normalisation of invasive surveillance, the acceptance of everyday violence and discrimination, the torment of not being able to return to one’s land and, for hundreds, the enduring pain of not knowing what happened to their loved ones, are pockmarks successive governments have tried to erase. But inconvenient truths persist and fester, no matter what the official narrative is.

Ten years after the war ended, that commemoration would be fraught with controversy, challenges and conflict, particularly in the north, was widely anticipated. Chief amongst violent drivers is a fascist Buddhist nationalism that has targeted minority communities and religions. The most visible violence since 2012 has been against Muslims, but evangelical Christians have also suffered from verbal and physical violence. A growing record of this frothing manufacture of fear, anxiety and othering is a few clicks away on social media, where the worst forms of racism grow and spread. Though technology takes the rap, the communal, social and political faultlines this content weaponises and widens have existed for decades. Sri Lanka’s political culture aids and encourages this violence, even as noises around reconciliation, rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction are routinely paraded to the international community.

The impact of unmet promises by politicians, an enduring impunity that has perpetrators of violence occupying high command or public office, social stigma as well as issues like alcoholism and steep debt prevent progress in areas most deeply scarred by war. While much has changed in the north by way of new brick and mortar, it is questionable to what degree a positive peace involving the transformation of hearts and minds has been achieved. The gap between what is projected and perceived, and what is simmering underneath, is a new driver of violence.

Attacks fuel tensions

These disturbing dynamics pre-dated the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. The immediate reactions and responses by the state has visibly shifted the country to the right, towards frameworks drawn up by military hawks. National security has a new currency. With the much-feared former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa choosing the immediate aftermath of the attacks to announce his presidential candidacy, the mainstream political discourse places populism over principle, and expediency over ethics. With the country’s economy now in complete shambles at a time when it was just recovering from the devastating constitutional crisis in late 2018, powerful voices that shun democracy and institutional frameworks will gain strength and support, promising much by way of personal, direct intervention. Grief, fear, anger and anxiety makes for fertile ground for populism to take root.

Lost to many in the tidal wave of updates after the Easter Sunday attacks was the news that in the northern city of Jaffna, the Sri Lankan Army had arrested the president and secretary of the Jaffna University Student Union for keeping a framed photo of the former leader of the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam in their office. This desire to remember the leader of the Tamil Tigers and by extension, the movement, its genesis, drivers and enduring relevance to so many, provides a revealing answer to the question of how far the country has come, 10 years on from the end of its civil war.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is a PhD student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

- Asia Media Centre