The clashes at the University of Jaffna indicate that the process of national reconciliation may be progressing far too slowly
Student clashes at the University of Jaffna last weekend underscore the complexities and uphill battles inherent to Sri Lanka’s reconciliation project
This month Sri Lanka marks the 33rd anniversary of one of the darkest periods in the island’s history. Sparked by a LTTE ambush of soldiers in the North on 23 July 1983, anti-Tamil riots swept across the country, tacitly sponsored by the state; the legacy of a past steeped in discrimination, resentment and majoritarian policymaking that would herald a brutal and bloody future over the next three decades.
The pogrom gave birth to an extreme form of Tamil nationalism that could go head-to-head with Sinhalese nationalist forces and made a strong case in Tamil-dominated regions and sections of the international community for a separate Tamil homeland that would free the minority community from discrimination and excess at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.
Unable to guarantee the safety of Tamils in southern parts of the country including the capital Colombo, the Government adopted mass evacuation procedures, sending Tamil residents by the ship and plane load to the North and East where they would have safety in numbers.
In a memorable speech in Parliament on 23 July 2013, the year which marked the 30th anniversary of Black July, Tamil National Alliance Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran spoke of how the Government had been unable to protect him and his family in the capital Colombo during the ethnic pogroms of 1977 and 1983. Sumanthiran’s description of his evacuation from Colombo during the riots, once by air and once by sea, was poignant in reflecting both the personal impact of the persecution and the tragedy that was befalling a nation as a whole.
“Twice in my student days, I was taken away from the capital city, once by air, once by ship, totally at the cost of the Government of Sri Lanka to the North. The Government, being unable to protect me in its own capital, thought that I would be safe in my home and sent me to my homeland….But for me having grown up in the cosmopolitan city here, the capital of this country, that was an acknowledgement by the Government at two different times that this was not my home. That my home was in the north. That it was in my homeland that I would be safe,” the TNA lawmaker told the House in his July 2013 speech.
Sumanthiran was of course making an argument for the right to self-determination and political autonomy for Tamil people in the North and East, given the Government’s own acceptance of the distinctive demographic in those regions. But there is something heartbreaking in an acknowledgement by the state that a section of the citizenry was in mortal danger in parts of a country they called home. Evacuation is alienating, isolating and gives rise to ethnic ghettoisation. The idea that a citizen of Sri Lanka is only safe among his or her own ethnic group is dangerous – it erodes trust between communities and hinders national reconciliation.
Last Saturday’s clashes at the University of Jaffna were unsettling for several reasons, but most distressingly because the violence ended in some Sinhalese students at the university reportdely being evacuated from the North in buses escorted by the Special Task Force for security. The reports said the students had been transported back to their hometowns for their protection.
While the student clashes last weekend and the reported evacuation can hardly be compared to 1983 without gross exaggeration, the TNA in its statement issued on Sunday, one day after the clashes broke out, was quick to recognise the parallels, inviting Sinhalese students back to the Jaffna University and calling on Tamil students on campus to ensure their protection.
The issue was subsequently clarified, when a delegation of three ministers visited the University earlier this week, following the clashes. The Ministers met with Sinhalese students who remained in Jaffna, who assured them that they were being well treated. New reports said that it was only Science Faculty students that had been transported out of campus since the faculty was closed down soon after the clashes. The TNA had also been misinformed that there had been an evacuation of Sinhalese students at the campus en masse, and only the students of the Science Faculty had returned to their homes due to the closure, the Party’s Spokesman Sumanthiran clarified. Correspondents in Jaffna said the Vice Chancellor of the University had ordered the evacuation of students in the Science Faculty hostel, with buses brought to the campus to transport them. Some students who boarded in private homes had chosen to remain in Jaffna. Many of these students hailed from places outside the Jaffna District, the correspondents said.
In retrospect even the partial evacuation last Saturday may have been an overreaction on the part of the authorities, but over the decades, it appears to have become the first resort of state officials in the face of violence and communal tensions to prevent reprisals against those who have already been victimised. The fear for authorities was that the continuing presence of the Sinhalese students from the Science Faculty in the North in the aftermath of the clashes at the department, could lead to further violence that could spark a wave of communal tension across the island. In the face of that frightening prospect, the Government and university authorities chose to err on the side of caution.
In its reaction to the student clashes, the Government chose to downplay the communal aspects, preferring to call the incident a fight between two student groups. While the Government response was viewed by the Sinhalese nationalist fringe as a burying their heads in the sand tactic, the conscious decision of the state and the country’s main Tamil party to defuse tensions rather than fan the flames of impassioned nationalist sentiment on both sides of the ethnic divide must be commended.
In the parallel universe that existed in Sri Lanka only 18 months ago, the story of the Jaffna University clashes would have ended in a very different way. Retribution would have been swift under the former Defence Secretary’s directives, a crackdown on Tamil student representatives inevitable and a strong military and intelligence presence within the university purportedly to ‘preserve the peace’ but in reality to intimidate and subjugate would have been non-negotiable. Instead the Government acted with maturity, making a collective decision to refrain from stoking nationalist fires, promising to bring miscreants to book, choosing to use the police instead of the military to address the violence and urging calm on all sides.
Moderate voices on every side of the political spectrum prevented the situation from escalating or spreading to other campuses or regions of the island. The clashes served as a reminder of the very different country Sri Lankans live in since the January 2015 elections.
Naturally, last weekend’s incident in the Northern campus did not occur in isolation. It was the manifestation of years of simmering tensions within the student community, ethnically and politically polarised and thrown together within the institution of higher education after years of isolation.
In the war years, out of fears for their safety, students from the South were not given placements within the Jaffna University, widely held as an institute of academic excellence, with medical and science faculties to rival any university in the island’s south.
Since 2010, the situation altered. The Government deemed it safe for students from the south to pursue a tertiary education in the north. For 26 years the LTTE, fighting for a separate homeland in the North and East, made every effort to cut the people of the North off from the people of the South. The lost rail connections, large swathes of no man’s land and heavily guarded borders disconnected northerners from southern communities, making it easier for the Tigers to demonise the south and keep interactions with the majority community down to the bare minimum.
For post-1983 generations in the north and the south, the country effectively ended in Anuradhapura and Vavuniya. Post-war reintegration therefore, is believed to be key to bridge building and reconciliation.
This was the Government rationale for the swift reconstruction of arterial roads linking north to south and the resumption of rail services between Jaffna and Colombo. Presumably, it was also the rationale for placing students from the South in Northern and Eastern universities. The more sinister theory was that the Government was actively seeking to change the ethnic demographic in the North and East, along with a subtle colonisation program that was taking place in many parts of the North.
Grievances on both sides
For the local community, the ongoing military presence in the north that served to impose all the trappings of conquest and Sinhala-Buddhism on the Tamil-Hindu dominated region has rankled over the past six years.
For a section of the student community in the Jaffna University, the elaborate Vesak and Poson celebrations, the alleged attempts to construct a Buddhist Temple inside the campus and the large numbers of students enrolled from parts of the country outside the Northern Province (60% of Science Faculty students at the University of Jaffna are Sinhalese, according to some statistics) have been irritants.
While the real story behind the welcome ceremony for new entrants to the Science Faculty remains elusive, it appears that the inclusion of the Kandyan dance routine – whether it took place by force or was agreed upon in the event planning stages - was viewed by a section of the students as a kind of cultural imposition; an extension of the tactics the Rajapaksa Government had used for five years since the war ended to suppress and supersede with its own culture, the cultural, religious and linguistic identity of the North.
The Sinhalese students association at the University of Jaffna has grievances of its own. Over the years this section of the student populace has complained about official university communications being issued only in the Tamil language despite several appeals to have them translated into English, they have protested the continued refusal of the campus authorities to register the association and the alleged destruction of Poson decorations painstakingly erected by Buddhist students studying at the university. So in a strange role reversal, the concerns of the Tamil student population mirror the insecurities of the Sinhalese community in the South, while the grievances of the Sinhalese student community reflect the discrimination and the feeling of being outnumbered that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka has experienced for decades.
The grievances are real. Exacerbated by youthful passions and perceptions of injustice on both sides, the tensions were bound to spill over at some point, university watchers observed. The violent manifestation of these grievances could also be strong indication that the process of reconciliation and reckoning with a brutal past may be happening much too slowly. Clearly the Government and university authorities have shown little foresight by failing to put integration and cultural sensitization programs in place to unite an ethnically diverse student community.
In other universities across the island, the class struggle is predominant and race takes a backseat. In those campuses, students rally against the establishment and unions seek to equalise the student population by imposing language and attire codes. The Jaffna University case is unique; the fault-lines are different and friction too easy. The reintegration of that campus warranted greater thought and attention; clearly, after years of rancour, allowing things to settle down naturally was never going to work.
A minority in Jaffna
And while the concerns of both factions of students must be acknowledged, there are other indisputable facts that call for the condemnation of the clashes. The same yard-stick applied to the Aluthgama riots, the Weliweriya attack and the alleged civilian massacre in Mullivaikal must be applied, albeit to a less serious degree – in this instance.
In each of those cases, the fundamental question was ‘who held more power?’ In Aluthgama it was the Bodu Bala Sena supporters who had active state patronage; in Weliweriya it was the gun-wielding military brigade shooting unarmed protestors; in the No Fire Zone it was a military armed to the teeth with long range guns and airpower against 300,000 civilians in a shrinking stretch of beach with Tigers in their midst. In such cases, the ‘who started it’ question becomes irrelevant.
Similarly at the Jaffna University, perceptions of state support notwithstanding, the Sinhalese students are undoubtedly a minority on campus. Ethnic cleansing by the LTTE has whittled the Muslim and Sinhalese communities living in the North down to virtually nothing. For many of the new entrants to the Science Faculty being welcomed last Saturday, it was the first time they had set foot in the Northern peninsula. Their first experience of the unfamiliar region was needlessly, avoidably horrific.
Hailing from a community that has suffered the evils of majoritarianism for the better part of 60 years, this was a poor performance by Tamil students on being confronted by a minority in their own region. And while a case is being made by the Tamil political leadership for the re-merger of the North and East, such incidents do nothing to allay the fears of the Sinhalese and Muslim communities living in the East who remain deeply wary of a merged North-East.
The clashes have also given the pro-Rajapaksa Joint Opposition and its social media warriors an opening to showcase the perils of ‘leniency’ in the North and make a strong case in the island’s south against de-militarisation, long acknowledged by rights activists as crucial to reconciliation and normalisation in the formerly embattled province.
The Jaffna youth, who have suffered oppression over generations, had an opportunity to act more graciously. The Sinhalese students were the outsiders. And they were outnumbered. The provocation that sparked off the clashes do not matter. Reverse this situation for one moment, and much of the grey areas become black and white. What if Tamil students had been beaten up and injured at the Ruhuna University, where they were a clear minority? Condemnation from all sections would have been swifter; the historic weight of that crime would have demanded it.
The Jaffna University clashes have provoked a much more measured response – perhaps in part because of the murkiness of the information surrounding them. But the incident calls for introspection, it requires confrontation and understanding about how much more difficult and complex the task of reconciliation is going to be, and how inter-generationally the threads of ethnic conflict are woven. And violence against a minority anywhere in the country must be condemned, in the strongest possible terms.
The liberals who stood against Aluthgama and Weliweriya, who boldly refused to cheer while the war was ending in a bloodbath in 2009, have the moral legitimacy to condemn racism and violence against the vulnerable and the marginalised anywhere.
Elephant in the room
On a more controversial note, the Jaffna University clashes have also opened the door to address an elephant in the room that has been increasing in size over the past few years. A creeping problem of aggressive Tamil nationalism at the Jaffna University has remained largely unchallenged. It is increasingly a hot-bed of extremism, as evidenced as recently as 18 May this year, when the memorial event held within the campus was the most overt pro-LTTE commemoration held in the Northern Province.
The university routinely, but on a smaller scale, commemorates the Tigers’ Heroes Day on 27 November, a day the LTTE set aside during the war years to memorialise the ‘martyrs’ or fallen in its cause. But the extreme ideology taking root within sections of the campus has also manifested in more subtle ways.
In April last year, the Jaffna University Vice Chancellor refused to permit a discussion on Rajan Hoole’s new book ‘Palmyra Fallen: From Rajani to War’s End’ within the university premises. In September 2014, the university revoked approvals for an event to commemorate the life and work of Tamil rights defender Rajani Thiranagama, on the 25th anniversary of her killing by the LTTE.
Thiranagama is best known for her work with the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), a Jaffna-based organisation that documented atrocities committed against Tamil civilians by the military and the Tigers, and her co-authorship of the book Broken Palmyra. Thiranagama was gunned down in Jaffna in 1989 by the Tigers, whose cause she once supported before she grew disillusioned by their tactics and their crimes against the Tamil people whose freedom they claimed to be fighting for.
Thiranagama was an academic at the University of Jaffna, working in the University’s Anatomy Department at the time of her death. There was no reason for the university to refuse to host a commemoration for the human rights icon, unless her anti-LTTE credentials had threatened to cause problems for the university authorities from factions at the campus still sympathetic to the Tigers’ cause.
Ironically, the greatest sympathy for the ideology of separatism within the Northern Province comes within the ranks of its successful professionals. The Jaffna doctors, lawyers and academics, many of whom have built lives outside the war-torn region, have been the strongest opponents of TNA moderates and the Tamil party’s support for the Government’s reconciliation and accountability processes.
It is from within these ranks that support has built for Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, a man handpicked by TNA Leader R. Sampanthan for his moderate credentials, whose positions on the ethnic question have hardened alarmingly and are at great odds with his party over the past two years.
The influential community actively supports hardline Tamil politicos including Gajen Ponnambalam, Shivajilingam and Ananthi Sasitharan and strongly oppose attempts by moderate sections of the TNA to build bridges between the community of the North and the rest of the island.
These factions, backed heavily by hardline sections of the Tamil Diaspora, responded viciously when the TNA called on the Northern Provincial Council to pass a resolution apologising to the Muslims for the expulsion of that community from the Northern Province by the LTTE in October 1990.
They responded in similar fashion when in September 2015, the TNA called for introspection by the Tamil people about crimes committed in their name, after the release of the OHCHR report that detailed atrocities committed by the LTTE as well as Government forces. And while the continued influence of these groups is not only detrimental to national reconciliation project overall, the spread of this hardline ideology within the precincts of a university has dangerous implications for post-war security.
Youth is easy to whip up against perceived injustice, easy to incite to violence and extreme measures. This is a lesson learnt once already in the Northern Province, with devastating effect.
The TNA must be hailed for its refusal to be drawn into ethno-centric, nationalist politics on the back of the Jaffna University clashes, even while its political rivals chose to exploit the incident, much like their nationalist counterparts in the south.
The TNA must continue to remain the adult in the room, leading the Tamil community against all odds, on a difficult journey of reconciliation. The Government must strive to do the same with the Southern constituency. Sri Lanka is living through an unprecedented time, when the centre is more moderate than it has ever been, on both sides of the ethnic divide. It is a time to take on difficult tasks, a time to change the mood in the north and the south and take control of the post-war narrative. The university clashes last weekend have underscored the desperate need to confront the demons of the past and lay them to rest within this generation.
University stories are supposed to be more idyllic than this. They should be about romantic revolutions against injustices by ‘The Man’ and lifelong romances that begin on secluded campus lanes. The Jaffna University may not have a mountain or a river to base its love stories on. But it has the makings of something much more wonderful. The stories written there have the potential to mirror the story of Sri Lanka’s post-war future. And hopefully that story will have a happy ending.
Reporters note: This article has been altered to reflect a clarification by the Tamil National Alliance that it was only students of the Science Faculty of the Jaffna University, where the clashes took place, that were returned to their homes, instead of the entirety of the Sinhalese student population on campus. Sinhalese Students at the Science Faculty who were hostel residents were transported in buses that were provided police security up to Vavuniya. Tamil students at the Science Faculty were also requested to leave the hostel.