icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE
The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Report 186 / Asia

The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE

For the past quarter-century the Tamil diaspora has shaped the Sri Lankan political landscape through its financial and ideological support to the military struggle for an independent Tamil state.

Executive Summary

For the past quarter-century the Tamil diaspora has shaped the Sri Lankan political landscape through its financial and ideological support to the military struggle for an independent Tamil state. Although the May 2009 defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has dramatically reduced the diaspora’s influence, the majority of Tamils outside Sri Lanka continue to support a separate state, and the diaspora’s money can ensure it plays a role in the country’s future. The nature of that role, however, depends largely on how Colombo deals with its Tamil citizens in the coming months and on how strongly the international community presses the government to enact constitutional reforms to share power with and protect the rights of Tamils and other minorities. While the million-strong diaspora cannot regenerate an insurgency in Sri Lanka on its own, its money and organisation could turn up the volume on any violence that might eventually re-emerge.

Following the defeat of the LTTE, the mood in the diaspora has been a mix of anger, depression and denial. Although many had mixed feelings about the LTTE, it was widely seen as the only group that stood up for Tamils and won them any degree of respect. The Tigers’ humiliating defeat, the enormous death toll in the final months of the war and the internment of more than a quarter million Tamils left the diaspora feeling powerless, betrayed by the West, demanding justice and, in some cases, wanting revenge. A minority in the community is happy the LTTE is gone, since it directed much of its energy to intimidating and even killing those Tamils who challenged their rule.

Funding networks established by the LTTE over decades are seriously weakened but still in place. There is little chance, however, of the Tigers regrouping in the diaspora. LTTE leaders in Sri Lanka are dead or captured and its overseas structures are in disarray. Clinging to the possibility of victory long after defeat was inevitable damaged the LTTE’s credibility and weakened its hold on the community.

Nonetheless, most Tamils abroad remain profoundly committed to Tamil Eelam, the existence of a separate state in Sri Lanka. This has widened the gap between the diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Most in the country are exhausted by decades of war and are more concerned with rebuilding their lives under difficult circumstances than in continuing the struggle for an independent state. There is no popular support for a return to armed struggle. Without the LTTE to enforce a common political line, Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka are proposing substantial reforms within a united Sri Lanka. Unwilling to recognise the scale of defeat, and continuing to believe an independent state is possible, however, many diaspora leaders have dismissed Tamil politicians on the island either as traitors for working with the government or as too weak or scared to stand up for their people’s rights.

Many now reluctantly recognise the need for new forms of struggle, even if they would still prefer the LTTE fighting. New organisations have formed that are operating in more transparent and democratic ways than the LTTE and that aim to pressure Western governments to accept an independent state for Tamils. These include plans for a “transnational government of Tamil Eelam”, independent referenda among Tamils in various countries endorsing the call for a separate state, boycotts against products made in Sri Lanka and advocacy in support of international investigations into alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan state. The new initiatives, however, refrain from criticising the LTTE or holding it responsible for its own crimes or its contribution to the shattered state of Sri Lankan Tamil society.

So long as this is the case, most Western governments will remain sceptical of the diaspora’s post-LTTE political initiatives. All have kept the transnational government of Tamil Eelam at arm’s length given its resemblance to a government-in-exile, even if the group does not claim this status. Western governments will have little choice but to engage with the dominant, pro-separatist Tamil organisations, even if officials would prefer to deal only with the handful of interlocutors with a record of criticising the Tigers. But until it moves on from its separatist, pro-LTTE ideology, the diaspora is unlikely to play a useful role supporting a just and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.

Watching the devastation of the final months of the war and the seeming indifference of governments and the United Nations, many Tamils, particularly the younger generation born in the West, grew deeply disillusioned. Governments with large Tamil communities have been worried this might lead to new forms of militancy. In the last months of the war and months immediately following, there were self-immolations by Tamil protestors, vandalism against Sri Lankan embassies, and increased communal tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese abroad. While such events have grown less frequent, risks of radicalism in the diaspora cannot be dismissed entirely.

While Tamils have the democratic right to espouse separatism non-violently, Tamil Eelam has virtually no domestic or international backing. With the Sri Lankan government assuming Tamils abroad remain committed to violent means, the diaspora’s continued calls for a separate state feed the fears of the Rajapaksa administration and provide excuses for maintaining destructive anti-terrorism and emergency laws.

To ensure the current peace is a lasting one, the Sri Lankan government must address the legitimate grievances at the root of the conflict: the political marginalisation and physical insecurity of most Tamils in Sri Lanka. Statements made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa since his January 2010 re-election suggest there is little chance the needed political and constitutional reforms will be offered in his next term. Any significant improvement in the political position of Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka will thus come slowly and with difficulty, requiring significant shifts in the balance of political power within Sri Lanka as well as careful but tough persuasion from outside.

India, Japan, Western governments and multilateral organisations can do much more to assist the political empowerment of Tamils in Sri Lanka and press Colombo to address the causes behind the rise of the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups. There should be no blank cheque for Colombo to redevelop the north and east without first creating a political climate where Tamils and Muslims can freely express their opinions and have a meaningful role in determining the future of the areas where they have long been the majority. Donor governments and the UN should also press more strongly for an independent inquiry into the thousands of civilians, almost all Tamil, killed in the final months of fighting. Their aid should be tied to an end to impunity for human rights violations and abuses of political power that undermine democracy and threaten the freedoms of Sri Lankans from all ethnic communities.

Colombo/Brussels, 23 February 2010

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former secretary to the Ministry of Defence and presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds election posters at the party's election office in Biyagama, in the outskirts of the capital Colombo. AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression. During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely to bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Posters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa next to rubble from burned-out Muslim-owned shops in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. CRISISGROUP/Alan Keenan

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins. In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution. Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans. During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute