Learning from Sri Lanka’s violent past

By Savi Hensman
July 26, 2013

In July 1983 in Sri Lanka, state-sponsored violence and undermining of democracy led to lengthy civil war and widespread suffering. Thirty years later, it would appear that many have failed to learn from the past.

That summer, following a rigged referendum, the increasingly dictatorial government had cancelled elections. Instead it organised riots, using as an excuse the funeral of soldiers killed by Tamil nationalist fighters.

Thugs murdered some Tamil civilians and destroyed the homes and businesses of numerous others, driving many out of the south and bolstering the nationalist movement. In the aftermath the government also cracked down still further on the parliamentary opposition.

With legal means of dissent blocked, many young people – including those in the Sinhalese ethnic majority – turned to violence. Rebel movements in turn behaved brutally in their own quest for power and there was a breakdown of the rule of law. Massacres, assassinations, imprisonment without trial and torture were rife.

Eventually pro-democracy campaigners, with mass support, restored order in at least part of the country. However fighting dragged on elsewhere, until the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. During the final conflict, both government and rebel forces were ruthless towards the unarmed and defenceless, thousands of whom were killed.

In recent years, the government has again been centralising power, under a ruling dynasty of president Mahinda Rajapakse and his brothers. Minorities are being mistreated, including Muslims who are targeted by a supposedly Buddhist movement that in reality pays no heed to the ethical teaching of the Buddha. Ethnic nationalism and communal bigotry are on the rise.

As in the past, international power politics has meant that overseas backers have been found to support the Sri Lankan regime’s unjust and often unlawful actions. Clearly some leaders have failed to learn lessons from the past, when violence ended up destroying even some of the politicians who promoted it.

Yet there are rays of hope. As before, some Sri Lankans and their friends around the world continue to hold on to the ideals of human rights and equality for all, publicising and criticising abuses.

Also some of the smaller opposition parties have tried to find more constructive ways of opposing government excesses. If they can continue to move beyond factional interests, instead finding ways to unite people of different ethnicities, faiths and regions, there is a chance of a better future for Sri Lanka.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and marriage equality. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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