CHENNAI: Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis has reached a breaking point in recent weeks, with the island nation facing severe shortages of essential supplies and fuel. Thousands of Sri Lankans took to the streets in the capital Colombo, demanding that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe step down.
But protesting is a luxury many Sri Lankan Tamils do not enjoy, and scarcities induced by the economic crisis are also not new to them, says Nilanthan, a political analyst based in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna. Sri Lankan Tamils, the country’s largest ethnic minority, account for nearly 12% of a population of 22 million, and are mainly concentrated in the northern and eastern provinces. The ethnic minority shares deep social, cultural and linguistic ties with people in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and has been struggling to recover from decades of a civil war that lasted until 2009 and claimed around 100,000 lives. In the island’s latest economic and political crisis, Nilanthan says Sri Lankans “are all equally affected across different ethnicities and social backgrounds.”
“There is no fuel and essential commodities everywhere. But it is an additional burden for Sri Lankan Tamils, as we are being victimised again. We are victims of war and now we are also victims of the economic crisis, ‘’ Nilanthan told DW. Packiyanathan Ahilan, a senior lecturer at the University of Jaffna, says economic suffering is something Tamils in the northern and eastern provinces are all too familiar with, having endured shortages for many years during the civil war.
‘’Tamils were already trained to survive without fuel, gas and electricity and less. So somehow, they can manage the ongoing issue based on their many years of experience being a Tamil in Sri Lanka. But it is difficult to live and run a day-to-day life for them too,” Ahilan told DW. Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces have hardly seen protests like the ones which took place in other parts of the country. “Sri Lankan Tamils living in these regions cannot protest,” said Nilanthan. ‘’Apart from isolated incidents of altercations between protestors and police officials, the protestors [in other regions] have largely remained unharmed… If Singhalese [largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka] agitate, they deal with the police. But here, we would have to deal with the military, ‘’ Nilanthan added.
Thangamuthu Jayasingam, a Batticaloa-based attorney and director of the National Peace Council, says Sri Lankan Tamils who have come out to protest for other issues have suffered for it. “Hence, they are cautious about actively protesting… But Sri Lankan Tamils support the protests heart to heart. They never voted for the Rajapaksas,’’ Jayasingam said. Civil protests have placed a spotlight on misgovernance and the divisional tactics of politicians based on religion and ethnicity. Ahilan says protesters are calling for the removal of the politically powerful Rajapaksa family because of corruption. “Tamils want justice for war crimes.” The Rajapaksa family played a major role in Sri Lanka’s civil war and their victory in the war was also one of the reasons they came to power. Some Sri Lankan Tamils are also demanding structural changes, including more autonomy and demilitarisation.
“If Sri Lanka does not sort out its minority issue, it will pull them down in the international stage too,’’ said Jayasingam. At least 100 refugees, mostly Sri Lankan Tamils from the Northern and Eastern provinces, have arrived in India’s Tamil Nadu in the past months. Many of them sold their homes and lands to pay for their boat trips to escape Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. “They think that Tamil Nadu is safe and whenever there is danger they flee there,” said Nilanthan, adding that Sri Lankan Tamils are culturally and linguistically connected to Tamil Nadu.