A brief history of Tamil liberation movement in Sri Lanka
The world has witnessed a long-standing conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Although the tension between Tamil and Sinhalese communities was there for a while, the conflict intensified in the 1980s due to the violence, inequalities, and persecution against Tamil ethnic minorities by the majority Sinhalese community and the central government. It ended after several decades of violent conflict between LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. During the war, thousands of people lost their lives, including innocent civilian population.
Before the western colonial powers put their foot on that island, Sri Lanka was divided into two separate kingdoms, a Tamil kingdom on the north-eastern side and a Sinhalese kingdom on the southern side (Singer, 1992). Although the Sinhalese people maintain that the Tamil kingdom resulted from the South Indian Invasion that took place nearly a thousand years ago (Singer, 1992). When Sri Lanka gained independence from the British colonial rule, most of the key civil service positions in the government were held by ethnic Tamil people due to their good educational background. In 1956 the government undertook a Sinhalese language policy to remove Tamils from those positions (Singer, 1992). Due to the government’s discriminatory policies, many young Tamilians choose to protest against government policies. That created a strong Tamil identity among the young generation that eventually gave birth to the separate country movement, also known as Tamil Eelam.
In 1983, organised violence against ethnic Tamil people led to the death of thousands, and many more became displaced. All those planted the seeds for insurgency among the Tamil population, and many non-state armed groups like LTTE emerged as a saviour of Tamil people from the oppressive government. Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government were engaged in a violent war for several decades, leading to committing atrocities by both sides. In 2002 a ceased fire agreement was signed between two sides with Norwegian mediation supports, but it only existed for one year. LTTE controlled nearly twenty-five per cent of lands in Sri Lanka during the peak of their role and had an army of almost twenty thousand people (Clarke, 2011). In 2009, the Sri Lankan government was victorious after capturing all areas previously controlled by LTTE and killed LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.
Atrocities committed during the civil war
Both LTTE and the Sri Lankan government are responsible for civilian casualties, “allegations against the government include large-scale shelling of humanitarian operations and hospitals, and those against the LTTE include the point-blank shooting of civilians trying to flee the conflict zone” (The Lancet, 2014, p. 1610).
During the conflict, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils left Sri Lanka and took refuge in various countries worldwide (Thurairajah, 2020). Nearly a million Sri Lankan Tamil had to leave the country for the conflict (Hyndman & Amarasingam, 2014). The war claimed the life of approximately 100 000 people (Burki, 2014). During the conflict, both sides committed numerous atrocities. The LTTE is being accused of multiple suicide attacks against Sri Lankan Government. They are also responsible for assassinating Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa (Harvard International Review, n. d.). In 1997, the US state department listed LTTE as a terrorist organisation (Deane, 2016).
A Sri Lankan government-led commission blamed LTTE for civil deaths and accused them of using the civilian population as a human shield (Burki, 2014). However, multiple reports indicated that the Sri Lankan armed forces were involved in committing atrocities like sexual assaults, rape in custody, torture, mass arrests, and detention, bombarding civilian populations indiscriminately, and executing the enemy soldiers without trials (Burki, 2014). Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 gave extra authority to law enforcement agencies of Sri Lanka (Deane, 2016). “Under this Act, the Tamils were stripped of their liberty, rights, property and with no security for their safety; they were ‘legally’ subjugated” (Deane, 2016, p. 974). Due to intense artillery fire and aerial bombing in Tamil civilian areas during the final days, nearly 40,000 Tamil civilians lost their lives (Deane, 2016). There are allegations against the Sri Lankan army that they have cold-bloodedly executed LTTE leaders’ twelve-year-old son after capturing him alive (Deane, 2016).
The Sri Lankan government did not make any considerable progress in ensuring justice and accountability towards crimes committed during the civil war and did not comply with the UN request to investigate all allegations (Deane, 2016). During the final days of the war, the government of Sri Lanka did not allow any independent observers to visit the conflict area to find the actual scenario of the conflict as per UN recommendations (Deane, 2016). Various reports also indicated that the Sri Lankan army attacked various hospitals in LTTE-controlled areas despite sharing their locations by UN and other aid agencies, which is a clear violation of international humanitarian law (Deane, 2016).
The various commission set up by the government of Sri Lanka was unable to highlight/address atrocities committed during the last days of the war. Based on a 2014 resolution (Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka), the UN Human Rights Council ask for OHCHR to investigate alleged crimes committed by both parties during the conflict (2002-2011) in Sri Lanka (United Nations Human Rights Council, n. d. a). In 2020, the Sri Lankan government stated that they will no longer cooperate and follow the 2014 UN resolution. In 2021, a UN report highlighted Sri Lanka’s inability to address the human rights violation (Amnesty International, 2021). In 2021 a new resolution (46/1) was adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council that will “strengthen the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in the Member States, with competent jurisdiction” (United Nations Human Rights Council, n. d. b). During the adoption process, 22 countries voted in favour, 11 against, and 14 abstentions.
Source: UN Human Rights Council, 2021
Bangladesh’s moral position on the question of genocide
Bangladesh was among the countries that voted against that resolution, along with Pakistan. During Bangladesh’s war of Independence from Pakistan in 1971, nearly three million people were killed by the Pakistan army. Since then, Bangladesh has been asking for Pakistan to apologise and recognise the genocide. However, after voting against the resolution that aimed to investigate possible genocide in Sri Lanka, how can Bangladesh ask others to recognise genocide? By voting against UN resolution 46/1, Bangladesh not only takes side with the perpetrators but also dishonoured its own people that became victims of brutal genocide by the Pakistan army.
Before that voting, the Sri Lankan president came to Bangladesh to attend the one-hundredth anniversary of Bangladesh’s father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. During the visit, Sri Lanka asked for Bangladesh’s support, and Bangladesh complied with this. Reportedly, Sri Lanka has promised Bangladesh to support its candidacy in the upcoming UN Human Rights Council election in return (Kaler Kantho, 2021). However, the transaction will be costly for Bangladesh as the country is asking for recognition of genocide committed by Pakistan and also when it generously gave refuge to nearly a million refugees from Myanmar that also became the victim of genocide by the Myanmar army. Defending its position to voting in favour of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh has stated that they always support their neighbouring countries. If we take this comment for granted, it will also be the position of Bangladesh to support Myanmar in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for alleged crimes committed against the Rohingya minority community. Bangladesh is currently hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who were forcibly displaced from their homes due to an organised attack by the Myanmar military and the ethnic Rakhine community (Mithun and Arefin, 2020). Hosting a large number of Rohingya refugees is putting pressure on the Bangladeshi economy. Although both countries signed a repatriation agreement to date, no refugees were repatriated. Most Rohingya refugees want a dignified return, assurance of their safety, and justice for all atrocities committed. The Gambia, with the support of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has filed a case against Myanmar for violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also known as the ‘Genocide Convention’ (Human Rights Watch, 2019). A positive result from ICJ could pave the way for justice and the dignified return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, benefiting Bangladesh. A rush decision to support Sri Lanks could have future implications while seeking support for achieving a solution for the Rohingya community in Bangladesh.
Understandably, Bangladesh would like to maintain a good relationship with all its neighbours. Still, it does not mean that the country should be blinded in its action and support governments that reportedly killed ethnic minorities in their country.
Moreover, Bangladesh should not overlook Sri Lanka’s support of the Pakistani government during its 1971 independence war. In support of Bangladesh’s liberation movement, India restricted its air space for Pakistani aircraft, so Pakistan used Sri Lankan airbase and seaports to refuel and transport arms, ammunition, and soldiers were used in killing the civilian Bangladeshi population indiscriminately (Ahmed, 2021). On many occasions, Pakistan expressed its gratitude towards Sri Lanka for helping them both politically and logistically during the 1971 war (Hindustan Times, 2011).
In contrast, ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka protested government policy to support Pakistan during Bangladesh’s liberation war (Cision PRWeb, 2021). Is this way we are repaying our debts to the ethnic Tamil populations in Sri Lanka?
Pakistan was also among the top suppliers of arms during the war’s final days against the Tamil population in Sri Lanka (Hindustan Times, 2011). By voting against the OHCHR regulation, are we not in the same boat with Pakistan? It raised some questions against Bangladesh’s moral standpoint in terms of recognising genocide and atrocities. A country that suffered the same sort of pain and suffering from brutal military killings, Bangladesh should have abstained from voting against the OHCHR resolution. Lastly, since the Rohingya population shares the same language, religion, and culture as Chittagonian speaking Bangladeshi population (Mithun, 2018), that may be why Bangladesh is vocal about Rohingya ethnic minorities but closed its eyes to Tamil minorities. The country should not pick and choose sides and address all human rights violations, whether within its borders or in the international arena.
Bangladesh has long been a supporter of the Non-Aligned Movement and ensured neutrality in its foreign policy. A balanced foreign policy also helped Bangladesh to get assistance from all contesting superpowers over the years. So, the country should not make any rash decisions that could have a future adverse consequence for the country. By uploading moral values, human rights, and transparency, the government should carefully decide on international platforms. Neighbourhood first is a good policy, but when it comes to sensitive issues, Bangladesh should uphold its moral values and learned from the past, especially those who helped them during their liberation war. A country that arises from the ashes of genocide should not vote for supporting a country for its alleged atrocities. This sort of decision could backfire when solving Rohingya refugee issues, which is currently a big challenge for Bangladesh.
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