As the reports so far confirm, the catalyst for violence against Tamil civilians in a southern ‘estate-hamlet’ of Dilithura in Sri Lanka is a serving army soldier and his companions in the nearby village.
Although the army involvement in ethnic violence is commonplace since 1983 and even before, the recurrence of the link between the ‘army and ethnic violence’ in a context of the declared policy of the government for ‘ethnic reconciliation’ undoubtedly is a dangerous trend.
It is not long time ago that a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP in Batticaloa, P. Ariyanentarian, protested against a statement by the JHU Minister, Patali Champika Ranawaka, who rather threatened that “if the human rights resolution is passed against Sri Lanka in Geneva, there will be communal unrest.” JHU stands for Jathika Hela Urumaya meaning ‘Sinhala national heritage.’
The statement was not considered as cautionary, but a threat. Similar threats in the bygone era had come from various ministers and some of them had to leave the governments as a result. The removal of Cyril Mathew in 1984 is one example. But during the war, many of them were by and large silent.
However useful these ministers may be for a government, ‘open advocacy’ of ethnic disharmony would undermine any government, particularly after the UN resolution, unless the government itself is openly leaning towards ethnic suppression. Mahinda Rajapaksa government undoubtedly and/or hopefully is not such a government.
It is ironic that this incident has happened on the Sinhala-Tamil New Year Day, a day which could be utilized for ‘ethnic reconciliation’ with immense potential. A soldier on vacation from a nearby village has gone to Dilithura on the 14th April and attacked a Tamil youth who had refused to call him ‘Sir’ that day and before.
When another youth tried to intervene or mediate, the soldier has assaulted both.
This could have been considered a ‘prestige struggle’ or a ‘personal matter’ if the incident had ended then and there. But the soldier had returned with around 30 companions to teach a lesson to the ‘whole community’ and attacked seven houses surrounding the house of the controversial youth and set them on fire allegedly after looting jewellery and valuables. Push cycles, motorcycles and three wheelers also were not spared from arson.
The damage claimed to be around nine million rupees. The incident had thus been reported to the Embilipitiya police, and what they have done so far is to arrest the two victims and not the perpetrators.
I personally recall a similar incident in May 2004 at Millakanda, Bulathsinhala, and many more before - some of which came under my direct intervention as the Director of the Peace Building Project of the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration. The compassioned politician, DEW Gunasekera, was the Minister.
There is a pattern of frictions emerging between what I may call the Tamil ‘estate-hamlets’ and ‘Sinhalese villages’ and these are different to the old ‘estate-village dichotomy’ in the plantation economy. The old dichotomy was largely latent although started erupting in hill country areas aftermath of the 1977 elections. The trigger again was inflammatory statements by people such as Cyril Mathew.
There were repeated bounds of violence in 1977, 1979 and 1981 before the major calamity in 1983. The history should not be allowed to repeat itself.
The new dichotomies that I refer to at Dilithura or Millakanda are different, mainly because the estates have now largely disintegrated and instead ‘estate-hamlets’ have emerged. At Dilithura, it is reported that there are over 500 families (not necessarily houses) and over 3,000 people almost all of Tamil descent.
Many estate-hamlets are based on old estate houses but renovated to modern circumstances. Some still work in the scattered small estates but most have gone into other vocations. Some estate-hamlets have progressed but not all. I have seen extremely pathetic estate-hamlets particularly in the Moneragala district.
Apparently mono-ethnic, but beneath, there are intermarriages even some changing their names!
From the information available, it appears that Dilithura is a progressing hamlet. They have had cycles, motor cycles and three wheelers, as reported. My reports are mainly from the Sri Lanka Mirror and Colombo Telegraph. I guess they also have radios, TVs, rice cookers, mobiles and other gadgets. I have seen them in many places but not in very many traditional Sinhalese villages. This is part of the natural friction. Some Sinhalese villages are even without electricity, but this not usually the case in estate-hamlets.
There are other induced or subjective factors. Sinhala people feel that ‘the others’ are ‘better off’ although both communities are more or less in the same boat. They also feel that Tamils are assisted by the NGOs, or the Church, while they strongly refuse any NGO assistance influenced by the village monk or the JHU agitator.
I remember a Sinhala youth at Millakanda saying “Un dan Onawata Wadei” meaning “they are now too much.” It is obvious then that ‘they’ refuse to call even a ‘soldier’ a ‘Sir’ unlike in the old days. They were, coming from the Indian origin, supposed to be submissive to the village folk those days.
It may be an exaggeration to say that there was an ‘army involvement.’ But there is a connection. It is this connection that is dangerous. The attack could have come from any other, than a soldier, but it is rather dangerous to come from a soldier. There can be other soldiers who would try to emulate this ‘hero’ unless necessary disciplinary action is not taken.
Let me put this to the Secretary of Defence. His ideal is to have a disciplinary army at least in the future although it was not apparently the case in the past. But there can be a connection between the past and the present incident. This soldier also can be someone who indulged in atrocities during the war against the Tamil civilians or the captured cadres or leaders. There are footages available without much difficulty to identify the perpetrators. Some footage may be doctored but not all. In criminology it is said that ‘once a serpent can always be a serpent.’
It is good to investigate to keep the army clean. However, I would blame more of ‘hate speakers’ than the army per se for the Dilithura incident. It cannot be brushed off as only an incident. It is only the ‘tip of an iceberg’ if the Minister Ranawake’s attributed threat is completely correct. If not, he should refute that claim.
All hell broke loose when the US decided to submit a resolution before the UN Human Rights Council to ask the Sri Lankan government to speedily implement the constructive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) including ‘credible investigations of alleged extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances.’
The government instantly behaved like the apparent guilty party. Otherwise, the people who have actually indulged in these atrocities cannot be more than few dozens. If they were arrested and tried, the whole matter could have been now settled paving the way for the speedy implementation of the LLRC recommendations.
Instead, the government and some of its constituent parties (not all) decided to mobilize the masses against the resolution and the Western countries. There is no question about the US or Western hypocrisy and double standards. Their attitude towards Israel is one example. Those could have, however, been countered diplomatically and not on the streets of Colombo. But most worrying was when the leaders and the supporters started their ‘hate speeches,’ slogans and placards with tremendous national and international repercussions.
Dilithura incident undoubtedly is a national repercussion of the ‘hate speeches’ that some of the ministers and their supporters unleashed during the protest campaigns. This is very clear when the nature of the protest marches, their slogans and speeches are analysed. The main international repercussion of course was the defeat of the resolution itself.
Mervyn Silva also was in the forefront of this campaign who directly advocated violence against anybody who opposes the government or even suspicious of opposing it. The protests turned into hysteric proportions when India decided to support the resolution. Perhaps one reason for the Indian decision is the way the matter was handled by Sri Lanka, including the protest marches.
It is not just traditional anti-Tamil ethnic hatred that manifested during the Dilithura incident. There is a clear element of anti-Indian sentiments. This could be surely ascertained if the culprit soldier and the 30 odd companions are carefully interviewed and studied. I am working on the hypothesis and a hypothesis is an ‘intelligent guess.’
What motivated them to attack the Dilithura residents or the two youth at this juncture? This is less than a month since anti-Indian sentiments were expressed by some ministers in Parliament and outside. Some of the newspapers, TV stations and radios are also party to this ‘hate-speech,’ both government and private.
As we have said before, the frictions between communities are part and parcel of the present reality of the Sri Lankan society. But triggers are the main problem. There was a time that when symptoms or initial incidents appeared, or even before, preventive measures could be taken up by relevant authorities. Under the former Ministry of National Integration, there was an extensive program to intervene in these situations.
I recollect how Minister DEW Gunasekera personally intervened in the situation, when incidents at Bulathsinhala erupted. Even the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa participated in some of these programs as the Prime Minister and as a concerned person.
All the above good things seem to have gone astray with the war victory euphoria, by neglect or for some other reason. I frankly lament for that.
There is a need for a proper investigation of the Dilithura event to prevent further recurrence of similar events in the same or other places. The alleged instigator, the soldier, and others should be appropriately punished and the victims properly compensated. There is no need to call the soldiers ‘Sir’ however ‘patriotic’ or ‘heroic’ they are. The war mentality should be changed from ‘top to bottom’ for the sake of peace, democracy and good governance.
It would be necessary to see whether the particular soldier or his cohorts have any connections to the past atrocities during the war. The responsible personnel should be duly punished to prevent them indulging in similar violations against the minorities or other members of the society at large. They may be the same people who photographed their atrocities themselves and sold them to the international sources for dollars.
Dilithura event highlight the need for a comprehensive national reconciliation program through education, training and institutional building to promote and protect human rights of all. Social reform and economic upliftment without adversarial group competition should be another requirement. The grievances of the Sinhala villagers and the Tamil estate workers particularly should be looked into.
The armed forces and the police should especially be trained to prevent ethnic violence with strict codes of conduct for themselves, to prevent them indulging in violations and miscarriage of justice.
- Asian Tribune -