A wave of protests in Sri Lanka has already demolished much of the government but how far have they gone to breaking down the country’s deadly ethnic divisions? The picture so far is mixed. Certainly at the protest centre of Galle Face Green in the capital Colombo there is a sense of unity.
“This is the real Sri Lanka,” Lukshan Wattuhewa told the BBC earlier this month. “Look, the Muslims are here, the Hindus are here, the Catholics are here. All the same blood.” A Buddhist monk nearby agrees, “People are putting aside religious and racial differences to join this struggle. Sri Lanka has become one united nation.”
Both men are from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority which accounts for three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s diverse population. Muslim involvement is particularly significant given the way the state has specifically targeted them as an “enemy within” and encouraged mob attacks on their shops and mosques.
In a country where the overwhelming majority are affected by the economic crisis, shortages and government corruption, it’s not surprising that people should come together to fight back. But what of the Tamils that fought a 25-year war for independence against the Sri Lankan state? Here the politics are more complicated.
Tamils are not a monolithic ethnic group. Hill Country Tamils, or Indian Tamils as they are sometimes known, are the descendants of indentured labours brought from southern India to work on the tea, coffee and rubber plantations in the central highlands.
Long a mainstay of the trade union movement, they have been on the protests—despite their distance from the main urban centres where most of the resistance takes place.
The government ban on the import of fertilizers hit the plantation economy hard, and workers there are already some of the poorest in the country. However, the Eelam or Sri Lankan Tamils, based mainly in the Northern Province and in the east of the country, have been far less involved in the protests.
That’s not because their hatred of the Rajapaksa regime is any less than elsewhere in Sri Lanka—in fact, the opposite is true. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the country’s defence secretary in 2009 when the government brought an end to the civil war by committing the most savage of war crimes.
Aerial bombing, shelling and army raids killed thousands of Tamils. The government imprisoned many in camps and still today families of the “disappeared” are left searching for the truth about what happened to their relatives.
One reason for the reluctance to join the protest movement is that the military machine remains deeply entrenched in the former strongholds of the Tamil Tiger resistance fighters. And the continuing fear of the Sri Lankan state is entirely justified.
The second reason is political. Tamil politicians actively discourage supporters from joining the movement precisely because it encourages a sense of connection to other ethnic groups, and with other regions that are also struggling.
Separatist politicians fear that sentiment because it undermines their claim that ordinary Tamils can only find freedom if they break from the Sri Lankan state. Staying out of the protests is a terrible logic that can only benefit the regime.
A movement that united all sections of Sri Lankan society would not only be better placed to destroy the Rajapaksa family dynasty. It is precisely the place to raise demands against ethnic oppression and Sinhalese chauvinism.
And, by doing so, it can help recreate a time before the divide and rule politics of colonialism and the post-colonial governments when the workers’ movement was largely united.
Such an integrated formation will be a necessity in the battles now and those to come even after a successful removal of the last remaining Rajapaksa in power.
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Historian John Newsinger writes