May 18: Tiny glimmers of hope four years on

Four years after the guns went silent at the end of the most brutal phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war, it’s quite extraordinary that survivors still don’t feel safe to come forward and tell the world what they witnessed, with the exception of one young British Tamil woman. I am talking about people who have received asylum in European countries – not those still living in the former war zone. The Tamilnet correspondent bravely did a few public appearances with a Sinhala exiled journalist who translated for him, but even he decided recently that the risk was too great for his family back home. Courageous eyewitnesses have spoken on TV with their identities disguised; contributed to the UN panel of experts, the Killing Fields films and my book of survivors’ stories and newspaper reports.  But it’s still impossible for Tamil war survivors to address public gatherings and tell their extraordinary stories of survival in person.

Imagine any other war where four years later the survivors are so silenced and invisible.  It says something about the degree of psychological control and oppression by the victors – the ripples of fear reach as far as London, Oslo, Paris and Geneva.

As a result I keep on retelling survivors’ stories to interviewers and audiences at literary festivals. Mainstream audiences know more and more about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and are shocked that the British Prime Minister will go to Colombo in November for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting but say they feel powerless to make a difference.

I meet many Tamil exiles who struggle with a response to the events of 2009 – they exhibit a range of emotions:  frustration, rage, guilt, resigned hopelessness and despair. There’s much discussion of trauma inside Sri Lanka but it is also a huge issue for diaspora Tamils, who themselves fled as refugees earlier in the war. Some come to events to thank me, clutching a copy of my book sweetly confiding that they haven’t been able to bring themselves to read it yet because they fear the emotions it will rekindle.

The overriding question from diaspora Tamils is why the international community doesn’t do more – why international journalists don’t cover the story – why the world left Tamils to die in 2009. During a recent Tamil radio phone-in programme one caller even asked me why the international community couldn’t organise better political representatives for Tamils! Too much emphasis on finding a savior from outside will prevent Tamils forging their own solutions – hopefully non-violent solutions.

From my vantage point, there are some signs of hope. I see the mood slowly – almost imperceptibly slowly – changing. Many who were quite happy to defend the Sri Lankan government’s conduct of the war a few years ago are less comfortable doing this now. The faint aroma – I won’t say stench yet - of war crimes has put them off.

The international community is grasping that an end to the fighting won’t automatically solve Sri Lanka’s problems. This is unfortunately at the cost of people inside Sri Lanka who are still suffering. Post-war there’s racial discrimination, enforced disappearance, torture, religious intolerance, Sinhala chauvinism, rape in custody, impunity, nepotism and corruption. European countries are receiving hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers with horror stories of ongoing abuse that are hard to deny.

Colombo’s protestations of good faith and entreaties for more time are beginning to look increasingly lame. Of course it doesn't help that protests approved by the Sri Lankan government openly abuse and ridicule international figures like the Indian Prime Minister, the US President, the Canadian Foreign Minister and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nor does it help that Sri Lanka fabricates grand action plans and then never implements them or holds secret military inquiries to exonerate its soldiers but never even bothers to publish their findings.

Progress towards justice has been infuriatingly slow but it’s worth remembering it’s taken decades in other countries like Cambodia or Guatemala. Any kind of international investigation into war crimes is still a long way off, but India has twice voted against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, there’s growing impatience in the United States, while Canada, which took a brave stand within the Commonwealth, has virtually dubbed the government in Colombo “evil”. The talk is now of “an international mechanism” for accountability in Sri Lanka, though what that would mean is unclear. Under pressure the Sri Lankan government is pursuing reconciliation options both with the Commonwealth Secretariat and a South African initiative. Unsurprisingly Sri Lankan officials are keen to discuss the issue of an amnesty – for themselves primarily.

Recent student protests in Tamil Nadu are another significant development because ordinary people in the southern state are beginning to take notice of the plight of their fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka. Though Colombo should not be heading the Commonwealth for the next two years, it will bring added scrutiny to its human rights record. Sri Lanka will not be able to arrest the mothers of the disappeared or citizens holding candlelight vigils calling for religious tolerance if world leaders are in town and international journalists are roaming about looking for a good story.

It’s true that Sri Lankans who oppose the Rajapaksa government by no means agree with each other. Several Colombo lawyers who have bravely challenged the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s top judge still do not take seriously the issue of war crimes in 2009. Muslims, who are now under threat, have not really received an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from others who’ve suffered before at the hands of Sinhala Buddhist extremists. However there is now a willingness on the part of opponents of the government to be more outspoken and take more risks than in the immediate aftermath of the war.

It’s a long way off but I hope for the day when the 18th May unites all Sri Lankans in mourning their terrible losses, rather becoming an excuse for triumphalism by one side.

Image: Defying a military ban, Tamils commemorate their war dead in the northern town of Vavuniya , 18 May 2013


Frances Harrison is a former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka and the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War, published by Portobello Books (UK), House of Anansi (Canada) and Penguin ( India). 

More articles by Frances Harrison:

Stranded in Dubai: Tamil refugees live in ‘constant fear’ of deportation
Sri Lankan newspaper attacked for 37th time
Priests demand tougher action on war crimes
Sri Lanka's killing fields tourism
One hundred thousand Tamils missing after Sri Lanka War