Refusing either despondence or melancholy Said noted that we could not allow the matter to be forgotten, and, whatever the odds, we had an obligation — moral and historical — to keep coming back to issues of justice and the Palestinian right to their homeland.
Said’s life and example are salutary and bracing for anyone concerned about the welfare of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Over four years after defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse seems bent on consolidating Sinhala majoritarianism and reducing the Tamils to a pliant minority.
A conjunction of domestic, regional and international trends has favoured his regime, and left the Tamils feeling orphaned.
By itself, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), scheduled to take place in Colombo in a few days, is no more than another international jamboree.
In symbolic terms, however, Rajapakse’s presiding over the conference, assuming its leadership for the next two years, and hobnobbing with world leaders will add another layer of legitimacy to his regime and its past actions.
The conference, thus, offers those interested in making the regime accountable for the events of May 2009, and for an impartial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the large scale civilian casualties, an opportunity to demand justice for the Sri Lankan Tamils.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, in her update to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, criticised the Rajapakse regime for its stonewalling on a full and impartial investigation into possible war crimes by military personnel and government officials during the final months of the assault on the LTTE.
Estimates of civilian casualties during that onslaught range from the UN’s 40,000 to something in the region of 70,000 by others. The government’s estimate pegs it at 9,000.
While some civilians were undoubtedly killed by the LTTE, it is clear that the vast majority were killed by the troops. Photographs, videos and witnesses have supported such estimates. Pillay has warned Colombo that unless significant progress is made on such an independent investigation before March, the HRC will be forced to launch an independent inquiry on its own.
In addition to the issue of war crimes, Pillay observed, as have many others, the attacks on the independence of the judiciary, media, human rights activists and dissidents; and on other ethnic minorities.
These have followed on a long process of slow and incomplete resettlement of displaced Tamils after the war; a virtual occupation of the north by a Sinhala-dominated military; systematic efforts to alter the demographic balance of the Northern Province through settlements; and everyday harassment of minorities by the military and police.
Essentially, the militarisation of the Northern Province may prove to be one of the enduring legacies of the end of the civil war.
While the government has prided itself on restoration of normalcy, rising tourism numbers (up 14%) and GDP (up 7%) in the last year, a recent election more accurately reflected the views of the Tamils. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 20 of the 28 seats to the provincial council.
A party affiliated with the erstwhile LTTE, opposed to the central regime, and in favour of greatly expanding the anaemic autonomy granted to the currently toothless provincial councils, swept the polls. The resounding defeat of the ruling party indicates the degree of Tamil alienation from the regime and its actions in the north.
The Rajapakse regime has capitalised on a favourable moment to stamp its authority. Within the nation, the Opposition has been on the retreat. Regionally, India seems disinclined to take up the cause of the Tamils in any proactive manner while the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu have played to the gallery while doing nothing substantive.
A brief surge among students and civil society groups a few months ago after the publication of photographs depicting the killing of Prabhakaran’s son rapidly faded.
It is important, amidst this formidable array of impediments, to continue to fight for the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
The discrimination visited upon them cannot be justified on grounds that the LTTE was a merciless and violent insurgent group.
In some part the unjustifiable extremism of that outfit was itself a legacy of decades of Sinhalese refusal to accommodate moderate Sri Lankan Tamil leaders like Chelvanayagam and Amirthalingam and recognise the Tamil claims for federalism, provincial autonomy, cultural and linguistic rights, and equality.
With the exception of the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who has vowed to boycott CHOGM on account of the “ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra-judicial killings”, all the other heads of state seem ready to participate in the event, including David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
It is high time that concerned Indians pressure Singh to boycott the event — unless the Sri Lankans agree, as per the UN, to a full, impartial and international inquiry into the killings of May 2009 and events thereafter.
Whatever the odds against that happening, and however symbolic and ceremonial the CHOGM may be, the fight for justice and fairness must go on. As Said might have put it, one has to keep coming back, stubbornly and repeatedly, to such issues so that they may not be forgotten — and those in power remain accountable to us.
(Sankaran Krishna is professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa)
The views expressed by the author are personal