BIRD’S EYE VIEW
Year 2019 is of great significance as it marks ten years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan military forces. People looked forward to enjoying peace after years of conflict and there seemed to be more freedom, economic development and material prosperity in many parts of the country. There were changes within the society where people visibly relaxed with lax security concerns. It seemed as if there were no major threats to national security until the Easter Sunday carnage this April.
While military victory was crucial in ensuring the defeat of the LTTE, it is vital to scrutinise whether peace and positive socio-economic changes were enjoyed by every citizen. The study titled ‘The Forgotten Victims of War: A Border Village Study’ by Marisa de Silva, Nilshan Fonseka and Farah Mihlar proves that this was not the case. Specifically in areas identified as ‘border villages,’ people have suffered more harshly than those in other parts of the country, during both war and post-war periods. Moreover, the emergence of new extremist Islamic terrorist threats and further ethnic disharmony it has caused within the country proves that the society has not fully healed yet.
This is not to say there had not been any positive reconciliation effort since the end of the war in 2009, but the sparks of extremist nationalism and religious ideologies that ignited a fully-blown conflict in Sri Lanka still remain. New threats have emerged and if same sentiments of extremist thinking are continued, there could be worse repercussions. Hence, the aforementioned study appears at an opportune moment. It looks at the progress we have made in terms of reconciling efforts after the three-decade-long war, the weaknesses and loopholes that need to be addressed in terms of reconciliation, peace-building and development. Moreover, it discusses the possibilities of enhancing ethnic harmony and recommendations that can be initiated by different stakeholders for sustainable solutions.
Children in border villages have less chances of receiving a quality education
As represented in this study, ‘border villages’ refer to villages that can be found in the border of the northern and eastern provinces; or in the ‘border’ between the LTTE and military controlled areas; or villages on outskirts of the conflict zone, which were vulnerable to attacks by warring factions. The comprehensive report focuses on selected border villages from six different districts. They had different ethnic and religious breakdowns; the districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa represented a Sinhalese majority; Mullaitivu and Batticaloa a Tamil majority and Trincomalee and Ampara a Muslim majority. The report analyses the impact of war towards the lives of all three of these ethnic groups and how they are adjusting after the post-war period.
According to the authors, most of the villages represent different distributions of ethnic concentrations, where the majority was used to identify whether it was a Sinhala border village, Tamil border village or a Muslim border village. They often existed side-by-side with a village composed of the religious/ethnic other. Therefore, they become ideal spaces where conditions related to war, ethnicity and reconciliation can be observed.
However, the authors mention that the idea of ‘border’ itself can be problematic as the term can be identified with a stigma attached. They have used this term to “capture the geographical, demographic and territorial dimension of the target group” while recognising “it was often unclear, fluid and shifting where the Tamil militant-controlled territory ended and Sri Lankan military-controlled territory began.” The experiences of residents in Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim border villages highlight how they encountered stigma and how they were victimised by their own communities and by those who were identified as ‘the other.’ While this was not an ideal situation, it also represents a possibility for the future, through their common victimhood. According to Marisa de Silva, Nilshan Fonseka and Farah Mihlar, this common victimhood can even be identified as the greatest strength for Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who have suffered during the war and post-war contexts. For instance, the authors mention that the evidence of communities’ ability through common ‘victimhood’ to transcend the association of the ethnic/religious ‘other’ from the perpetrator reach out to understand their suffering and grievances. In this ability to understand, empathise and feel for the ‘other’ lies tremendous hope for reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka.
Suffering is common despite ethnic or religious divisions. Deaths, disappearances, loss of loved ones, displacement, loss of land and property influence the sanity and standards of living of anyone despite their superfluous divisions or whether they are Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims. Understanding this reality and learning to empathise with each other will be the way forward.
- Difficult to attain lasting peace if transitional justice -fair to all ethnicities - is not carried out
- Sri Lanka at crossroads in a very long journey
- Children in border villages have less chances of receiving a quality education
- Suffering is common despite ethnic or religious divisions
- Concerns over linguistic barriers
BORDER VILLAGES DURING WAR
Extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, abductions and displacement, destruction of farms and villages were the most common forms of violence suffered by all ethnic groups in border villages. The Sinhalese experienced targeted attacks on their villages where the LTTE was the main perpetrator. According to the report:
The Sinhalese…spoke of living in constant fear and vulnerability. Villages were threatened for a number of reasons including due to their location, association with the military and the Sinhalese identity.
Tamils in border villages too suffered many atrocities. As represented by the authors of the report, the Tamils in border villages were victimised by the LTTE, the Karuna group following the breakup of the LTTE and by the Sri Lankan security forces. The impossible position they faced within the war is proved through the experiences of a participant from a Focused Group Discussion (FGD) in Aariyammankeni.
If we were against the LTTE,they would immediately kill us – it was the same with the army. We just wanted to save our lives, but it was not possible, people died either way –FGD, March 27, 2019.
Muslims in border villages said “they were in an unusually difficult position, caught up between both warring parties. While they attributed most of the violations they suffered to the LTTE, they also explained how they were persecuted and harassed by both the LTTE and military on suspicion of supporting the other.”
These experiences have one common factor despite their ethnic differences; ‘common victimhood!’ Interestingly, they were victimised not only by those who were identified as their ‘ethnic other.’ All three groups were marginalised within their own ethnic group as well. For instance, Tamils who lived in these villages experienced violence in the hands of the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups. And as the report states:
Sinhalese villagers spoke of how they faced stigma for living in border villages which is often seen as degrading. They stated that when Sinhalese were targets of LTTE attacks, they were marginalised and discriminated against by other Sinhalese, and referred to as ‘Sinhalekoti’(Sinhalese Tigers) because they lived in close proximity to the north and east.
So they were not trusted within their own ethnic group and sometimes their children were not accepted in local schools. As a result, common victimhood became more significant as they represent a category of their own who were marginalised and victimised by everyone else. Therefore, if peace, reconciliation and sustainable development become possible in these areas of border villages through better understanding and a better action plan, the successful establishment of these ideologies in other parts of the country can also be expected.
BORDER VILLAGES IN POST-WAR CONTEXT
As the report highlights, “even if violations took place decades ago, memories are vivid, emotions are strong” and grief still remains within the border village communities. However, emotional trauma is just one part of the issues faced by residents of these villages. The process of transitional justice, issues related to income generation, livelihood and development, combatting high levels of debt and unemployment, lack of quality education, issues of language and land related problems are other prominent issues that threaten the standard of living of all ethnic groups within these villages.
Most of them were not aware of transitional justice. As the report states, “transitional justice, both conceptually and as a process initiated by the government and international donors, means nothing to most people but claims for justice are strong among Tamils, less so among Muslims and least among Sinhalese.” However, if a proper process of transitional justice that is fair to all ethnicities is not carried out, it could be difficult to attain lasting peace.
Moreover, constant displacements, loss of the breadwinner in the family and loss of land and property have influenced traditional forms of livelihood of most of the residents in border villages. As such, it is difficult for them to establish a proper livelihood than residents in other villages. Furthermore, the severe drought condition that has influenced a prominent part of the island has also become a problem in border villages, making it difficult for villagers to earn a sufficient income through agriculture. As a result, unemployment levels have soared and debts accumulated. All participants were not satisfied with the support they received from the government to address these problems.
Another pressing issue in border villages is education. Children in border villages have less chances of receiving a quality education. Constant displacements, being recruited as child soldiers, physical and emotional trauma they have suffered along with the period of time they have spent in refugee camps have impacted student performance in school. According to the report, school standards were poor with insufficient resources and insufficiently-trained teachers. Educational attainment varied but in some areas was low with high dropout rates and few students progressing into higher education.
Moreover, participants of the study mentioned that they did not have proper chances of learning English due to the lack of trained teachers. They said with the level of education they received, they lagged behind their peers. It was difficult for them to compete for good jobs with those from cities like Trincomalee or Kurunegala who had better access to quality education. As a result, the circle of unemployment and debt accumulation continued thus challenging a sustainable development potential in border villages.
The issue of language and land related problems were also prominent in these areas. Most of the Tamil and Muslim residents in border villages suffered due to their inability of conversing in Sinhala when accessing government services. While most of them were somewhat proficient in speaking Sinhala for simple purposes, receiving healthcare, explaining a complex ailment to a doctor who did not speak their language, going to a bank and filling forms etc. were difficult for them. Unresolved conflicts related to lands have deprived the rights of many people in these areas. Contested land claims and forced acquisition of civilian lands, especially by the government, is a major problem for nearly all people living in border villages.
The Easter Sunday attacks have created another problem to Muslims in these areas. According to the report, prior to the Easter Sunday carnage, Muslim interviewees expressed some vulnerability but did not consider themselves under immediate threat; anti-Muslim sentiment was felt but violence seemed distant, not affecting their areas. However, in validation workshops conducted after Easter Sunday attacks, this position had changed. All Muslims spoke of being affected by racist boycotts and prejudicial campaigns that were widespread even in their localities.
This hostility proves that it is easy to add fuel and create a raging fire if sparks of extremist nationalist thinking are not sufficiently addressed. Along with the already existing problems in border villages, distrust and enmity might compound the issues faced by residents.
These are just a few of the most prominent and cross-cutting problems faced by residents in border villages. It proves that a lot of work is required to right the wrongs and address issues faced by the residents.
Hence, the residents in border villages need to get away from this type of thinking patterns that further complicate their situation
LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE
According to the report, “all these groups have experienced serious human rights violations and war time atrocities which have been compounded by critical economic and social difficulties in the aftermath of the war.” Moreover, all of them feel their problems do not make the national agenda despite promises given by various politicians.
The report stated that “all three communities living in border villages possess what can be described as a ‘minority syndrome,’… [which], in this case, associated with being a non-dominant or numerically smaller group.” With the competition for very limited resources, each group felt that the other had an advantage. For instance, Sinhalese felt that Tamils through international attention and Muslims through effective politicians were beneficiaries to more post-war aid and development support. Tamils felt the same about Muslims and argued that Sinhalese had benefitted more because they were the majority and dominate the government, military and bureaucracy. Muslims felt that, as the third largest ethnic group, they were last in line.
Hence, the residents in border villages need to get away from this type of thinking patterns that further complicate their situation. If they could be made to apprehend about their ‘common victimhood’ and how all of them have suffered at the hands of different perpetrators, more empathy and understanding can be generated.
According to the report, all three ethnic groups that were focused in this study felt an ‘omnipotent sense of powerlessness’ and they harboured a ‘high level of distrust of the government.’ This proves much more work is needed from the government and other relevant stakeholders in order to address these issues.
The report commented that there were no indications of a return to conflict or a sign that new conflict might emerge. However, it cautioned about the possibility in future, if the causes are not nipped from the bud. According to the authors, “these divisions and previously identified sense of anger and frustration, in the isolated, marginalised context of these localities, could lead to small-scale conflicts and undoubtedly be mobilised for mob attacks and ethnic violence.”
Considering all these issues and conditions, it can be deemed that Sri Lanka is at crossroads in a very long journey. Border villages represent an arena for co-existence, interfaith reconciliation and peace efforts. As the study has correctly ascertained, “priorities here include, though are not limited to, challenging dominant ethno-nationalist narratives of the conflict, raising awareness of the effects of war on all and, through education and trade, strengthening co-existence.” For this purpose, the report has included many timely recommendations that can be followed by the government of Sri Lanka, the United Nations, other non-governmental organisations and relevant stakeholders. Sri Lanka has gone through a challenging period of time during the war. Now, after ten years of war, we still discuss ways to combat the negative repercussions of the conflict. Realising that human suffering is shared and common and learning to empathise with each other will take us forward in the journey of sustainable peace and reconciliation.