On October 31 of last year, the campus of South Asia University (SAU) in New Delhi, India, glowed pink and blue. A field of students posed silently in the center of the courtyard, each behind a sign written in either English, Tamil, Sinhala, or Hindi. Some messages read as specific commands—“Restore the Democracy in Sri Lanka”—others less so—“No More Violence.” Thavarasi Anukuvi, one of only eight students of Sri Lankan descent studying at SAU, organized the demonstration. Anukuvi spoke with the College Hill Independent about the long history of political protests against the Sri Lankan government. He discussed the place that students, many of whom grew up during Sri Lanka’s nearly 30-year civil war, hold in the national conversation in post-war Sri Lanka. “All we demand is a government that is fundamentally built on democracy. And the acts by our president are steps away from that.”
However, the path to democracy, and the goal of this democratic desire, do not exist within a monolith. For students of Anukuvi’s generation, contending with a war-torn upbringing can often only happen through distance from the country's history—a distance that grants a double-edged comfort. One that allows students like him to process a collective trauma that stems from the civil war, yet precludes them from organizing a political reaction that aligns with the material and ideological realities of those still in Sri Lanka. Student organizing outside of Sri Lanka, then, must grapple with the challenge of mobilizing from afar, while also rejecting narratives of communal violence that have emerged from their homeland and from their families.
The October demonstration at SAU came a day after the firing of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the subsequent appointment of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place. For Sri Lankan people of both Sinhalese and Tamil descent, this move was not only unconstitutional—by law, a politician can only be appointed if they hold a majority in the parliament—but also a chilling reminder of a government that has repeatedly acted without due process. This is not the first time that Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa found themselves in contentious opposition: Rajapaksa ran against Wickremesinghe in the 2005 presidential elections and won by 50.3% of the vote. At the time, Rajapaksa represented the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, a group known for having a democratic socialist economic agenda, and Wickremesinghe the United National Party, a right-leaning, pro-capitalist political faction.
By the time of Rajapaksa’s appointment, the country had been in a civil war for 22 years, with armed conflict beginning in 1983, when an intermittent insurgency was brought forth by the minority Tamils (known as the LTTE) against the majority Sinhalese. This insurgency followed a series of discriminatory acts of displacement and erasure of Tamil identity by an increasingly nationalist government—namely, the 1944 recognition of Sinhala as Sri Lanka’s official language, diminishing the widely spoken Tamil, and the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act, which made it virtually impossible for the ethnic Indian Tamil minority to obtain citizenship in the country.
In 2002, due to a rising fear among LTTE that the US would support the Sri Lankan government as part of the 'war on terror,' the liberation army began exploring peace talks, signing a permanent ceasefire soon after. However, Sri Lankan leaders’ corruption and violation of ceasefire agreements culminated in a 2005 election framed by threats from both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government to reopen combat.
Initially, Rajapaksa styled himself as a man of peace and portrayed his campaign platform as based on negotiation. However, unlike Wickremasinghe, Rajapaksa called for a tougher line against the LTTE and decided, in an ongoing refusal to continue peace talks between the two groups, against the division of the country into federal states . In the three years since the signing of the initial ceasefire, following intensifying disagreements A year following his appointment, a series of orchestrated mine blasts killed a number of off-duty servicemen and civilians of Tamil descent, an attack the Sri Lankan government later blamed on the LTTE. In response, the LTTE “renewed their struggle” and pushed the country into the last phase of the war—a period that would become infamous for its war crimes. From 2006 to the LTTE’s eventual defeat in 2009, the war saw heightened human rights violations and mass civilian casualties: in early January of 2006, five Tamil students were killed by the Sri Lankan army. Furthermore, the last phase of the war saw a refusal of foreign aid intervention and signaled a start to the state-sanctioned media suppression that prevails today—14 media workers have been killed in the country since 2006. The UN and several human rights groups still cannot determine a clear casualty count, with many groups estimating up to 40,000 civilian deaths just in the last four months of the war.
Anukuvi’s family grew up in Batticaloa, a city in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka with a largely Tamil population. Though the war had been 10 years in power when he was born, it wasn’t until this fourth phase—when armed conflict moved further east—that war atrocities became synonymous with everyday life. “Growing up as Tamil in Batticaloa, I did not yet have the maturity to understand what was happening, even though I witnessed bombings every day and the LTTE’s were visible on the streets. They speak our languages; some are even relatives of civilians.” It is likely that civilians like Anu have close ties to members of the liberation army. At the time of the insurgency, as many youth joined the LTTE in pursuit of a individual Tamil self-determination. This is also why the university space, which although unfortunately remains inaccessible both geographically and financially to most Sri Lankans, might present the potential for a nationwide political movement. By building solidarity with Sinhalese and Tamil students who share his vision for a more democratic Sri Lanka, Anukuvi and his peers attempt to navigate histories they’ve been forced to inherit.
As a result of his family’s displacement from their home in Batticaloa near the end of the war, Anukuvi’s parents sent him to live and receive supplementary education in St. John’s Mission, a boys’ orphanage run by the Church of the American Ceylon. Under the direction of Darshan Albamavar, who previously worked as a settlement worker in Toronto, the boys’ home has made long-term connections with several US and global universities (RISD included) and allocates funding through donors each year for several boys, like Anukuvi, to receive a college-level education. Distance away from Sri Lanka has afforded Anukuvi the opportunity to re-evaluate “who were the victims and who were the beneficiaries of the war,” while recognizing an ultimately unresolved reality: “Ordinary people lost a lot from the war—they did not participate in the war, but the war participated in their lives,” Anukuvi tells the Indy, and some people, even Tamil people, still believe in violence as a need to regain their rights.”
Nethmi, a student of Sinhalese ethnicity who grew up in the city of Matara, a town south of Colombo, and now attends Macalester University in Minnesota, is of this same generation. Speaking to the Indy, she said she can still clearly recount waking to the sound of firecrackers signalling the reclamation of Tamil-controlled territory by the Sri Lankan army. Although she was brought up amid deep-seated Sinhalese nationalist sentiments, moving to Colombo around the age of 11 exposed Nethmi to much greater political diversity, where she began delving into the history of the civil war and reading widely on the topic. Although she recognizes the privileges she derives from being an ethnic majority, she cites systemic and unlawful violence against minorities as one of the reasons why she, like Anukuvi, was fervently against the appointment of Rajapaksa to PM last October. Nethmi’s higher education was funded by a donor of Tamil ethnicity who has ancestral roots in Sri Lanka, a gesture that took her by surprise and transcended the ethnic divides clearly defined in her upbringing. Higher education has pushed Nethmi and Anu to reconsider the differing politics of their identities. While spatially further away from Sri Lanka, they’re conceptually closer to re-evaluating their shared trauma and history of violence.
In writing this article, we are asking what it means to inherit a legacy of Civil War today as a student and as a citizen. How can education deepen the recognition of human costs from the war while accounting for its susceptibility to rely on incomplete narratives? Moving from his undergraduate studies at Eastern University in Sri Lanka to graduate studies at SAU, Anukuvi expressed that “one cannot critically think about the situation [the Civil War] through a state-sanctioned education, which always romanticizes the history,” pointing to the syllabi in Sri Lankan public schools as lacking. “We need to look at this as an education issue. In Sri Lanka, everything is to establish a state-sanctioned ideal—the people who are making this syllabi and all, they are part of the state or government and are attempting to establish this vision.” Although reading byond assignments has offered Anukuvi more clarity, both Nethmi and Anukuvi have lamented the rift their scholarship often creates when returning to their homes in Sri Lanka. But both have begun to imagine ways in which they might further conversations with Sri Lankan natives. In Batticaloa, Anukuvi has started and facilitated a number of progressive groups that regurarly meet, read books, and host discussions. He plans to return to Batticaloa after his studies and bridge conversations of the war’s history with the young boys at St John’s Mission. Similarly, Nethmi is working on additional scholarship in relation to the Sri Lankan landscape and similarly plans to return home post-graduation.
Nethmi’s predominantly Western education, however, has sowed frustrations that extend beyond her Sri Lankan roots and toward a fear of global amnesia. For as much as we want to acknowledge that the youth of today were too young to understand the war’s implications, the lack of public history gives way to a more serious concern of political apathy: the danger of not examining the legacy of civil war with sufficient reflexivity and self-critique.
Even after a Civil War that spanned over three decades, the trials are far from over for the Tamil population. While recognizing that both Tamils and Sinhalese were persecuted during the war, Nethmi laments that the Sinhalese majority “still don’t understand many Tamils were persecuted during the entire war.” The Tamil diaspora around the world has repeatedly called for the Sri Lankan government to be brought before the International Criminal Court for its war crimes and delayed justice for human rights violations. In response, politicians have instead responded by spreading fear through the invocation of nationalism. This past March, Rajapaksa warned that external adjudication with international judges could potentially signal a diminishment of Sri Lankan sovereignty by the UN, urging the country to move forward while ignoring active discrimination against Tamils: “We have all been affected—let’s forget the past and move forward.”
Anukuvi and Nethmi are two young Sri Lankans who have matured in the diaspora. The factors of time and space have removed them from the histories of ethnic conflict and government repression that have shaped the identity of modern-day Sri Lankans. This distance has also tasked them with a different burden, one of spiritual and idealogical awakening, the processing of self-identity in relation to intergentional traumas of war. Although these awakenings, for Anukuvi and Nethmi, took place outside of Sri Lanka and by virtue of their having benefited from institutions of higher learning, it has renewed a desire to return home and reshape deeply entrenched narratives of ethnic conflict. Ultimately, however, in order for student organizers to galvanize political change in Sri Lanka at large, the burden of redefining historical memory must extend beyond diasporic youth.
The conditions of exile, activism, intergenerational trauma, and political corruption that plague post-war Sri Lankans have largely been absent in the political and global news discourse of the US. The circumstances of a country’s geography should not determine the level of urgency and necessity for global attention and response. “Towards a New Collective” caps off a brief series in which contributors, editors, and staff at the Indy have examined the role of historical trauma, war narratives, and generational memory in contemporary South Asia. It is an attempt to investigate, analyze, and report on political events that have been sidelined by the narrow scope of mainstream Western media and to see them through the momentum of political protests, before and after, in history and in real-time.
The breadth of narratives highlighted in News this semester—from Sudan to Kashmir, France to Guatemala—is an appeal for a radical shift in global news coverage stateside. In order to move past a Eurocentric discourse that pushes an isolationist and nationalist agenda, we must work towards a well informed and better connected populace—one that critiques the places of privilege from which we think, write, and observe.
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