Photo courtesy Club Madrid

May 2014 marked the fifth anniversary of the brutal end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, amidst massive human rights violations by rival armies that killed thousands of civilians. While many Sri Lankans felt relieved to be free of the fear of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, communalism has since been allowed to flourish and democracy and the rule of law undermined.

Yet 16 August represents a very different sort of anniversary. Twenty years ago, through non-violent direct action, a heavily-armed dictatorial regime was forced to give up power and peace was temporarily restored in an island wracked by violence from many quarters. This was achieved in the main through mass action by ordinary Sri Lankans, though international human rights activism also played a part. Though the hopes raised by the 1994 general election were not completely fulfilled, I believe there are important lessons to be learned.

Dismantling constraints and changing culture

The outcome of the August 1994 general election was all the more remarkable because, during the previous decade-and-a-half, Sri Lanka had plunged down to depths which few could have imagined.

From 1948, when Ceylon (as it was then) gained independence, serious flaws had been apparent, in particular the denial of citizenship to upcountry Tamils, despite their crucial contribution to the nation’s economy, and ongoing neo-colonial relationship with the west, with a negative impact on prospects for development. However the small island in the Indian Ocean excelled in other ways, with a tradition of open political debate and free elections, widespread access to education and major improvements in public health. Few could have imagined what would happen just a few decades later.

The marginalisation of minorities was indeed a significant problem, expressed for instance in the 1956 Official Language Act, better known as the Sinhala Only Act, and 1958 anti-Tamil riots. So was the alienation of poorer Sinhalese youth, which boiled over in a short-lived and brutally suppressed rebellion in 1971 by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. The remnant of the JVP then shifted to the path of parliamentary democracy, seeking to become a mainstream party.

NM Perera, a leader of the left-wing Lanka Sama Samaja Party, had warned parliament in 1956 “that those who sow the wind, will live to reap the whirlwind. The race hatred that is being roused now will end in racial disorder and bloodshed… you just cannot stop this when you start on this slippery slope. There is no end until you reach rock bottom,” ending in “dictatorship”. But the warning was widely ignored, though anxiety about human rights intensified in the aftermath of the JVP uprising and unrest among Tamils in the North and East.

The UK government was one of several which helped to arm the Sri Lankan security forces to crush the rebels in 1971 and British intelligence officers gave secret advice. This was to become an important alliance in years to come. At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement was formed in Sri Lanka while, overseas, organisations such as the Ceylon Committee bringing together Sri Lankan and foreign human rights activists also campaigned for just and humane treatment of captured rebels.

The history of subsequent years can be read as a relentless succession of failures and horrors, of authoritarianism time and again triumphing over democracy, militarism over peace, narrow communalism over justice for all. Yet it was also a time of resistance, when through small (sometimes stealthy) acts of humanity and courage, sizeable numbers of people held on to values very different from the ruling elite and showed solidarity with one another across the communal barriers which the state had tried to reinforce. Some also had the humility to change their minds, letting go of prejudices and false confidence in the authorities and re-examining their assumptions. This other narrative, though sometimes eclipsed by the brutal deeds of the seemingly all-powerful, was to prove crucial to the developments of 1994.

An unpopular Sri Lanka Freedom Party lost power in the 1977 parliamentary election and the right-wing United National Party took over. Its enthusiasm for the global business sector appealed to the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which took control in the UK and USA in 1979 and 1981 respectively. They provided the new ruling regime, headed by JR Jayawardene, with the military and diplomatic support needed to transform the country into their view of an efficient modern economy, in which multinational corporations were encouraged to invest without having to bother about workers’ rights and dissent was stamped out.

An executive presidency was created, the president was given power to ban organisations and in 1979 a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed. A handful of young Tamils intent on fighting for a separate state posed little real threat but the government decided to eliminate this irritant by treating the wider Tamil community in the North and East as if they were enemy aliens. Young men, in particular, were pulled in, humiliated and sometimes tortured. As a result, sympathy for the extremists grew and they gained new recruits from among formerly law-abiding youngsters.

In the South, too, the government was busy doing away with opportunities for peaceful dissent. The civic rights of opposition leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike were taken away. Independent trade unionists and other were assaulted by the UNP’s thuggish ‘union’, headed by industries minister Cyril Mathew. He was also becoming notorious for his close alliance with Buddhist monk Madihe Pannasihe Nayake Thero, whose fiercely anti-minority rhetoric bore little resemblance to the wise and compassionate teachings of the Buddha. In universities too, learning was disrupted, while the school curriculum was distorted to indoctrinate children with racial hatred against non-Sinhalese people.

The burning of Jaffna’s historic library in 1981 was an act of state-sponsored lawlessness, with ministers looking on. This helped to unloose yet more of the restraints on violent and blatantly oppressive behaviour. In the East too, minorities came under attack. Judges were threatened and those in charge flaunted their apparent freedom to act as they pleased.

The government staged a heavily rigged referendum to supposedly postpone the forthcoming parliamentary election when, as customary, control would probably have shifted to the other main parliamentary party. Instead in 1983, using the ambush and killing of some soldiers as a pretext, the state unleashed large-scale violence on Tamils, a sizeable number of whom were murdered, others driven out of the South by UNP thugs. Some Sinhalese people sheltered Tamils friends or even resisted the attackers but many were in deep denial that anything serious was wrong. It was a sobering reminder of how easily even decent people can be manipulated during times of heightened passion – though some protested angrily against what was being done to their neighbours and their country.

There was international outrage: in some cases tourists were watching as defenceless people were slaughtered while police or soldiers looked on. However JR Jayawardene’s regime knew that it could act with impunity, since it had the backing of the world’s greatest superpower, the US state, as well as its old ally in the UK. Ironically, a government which relied so heavily on foreign arms, aid, investment and influence would go on to express resentment against outside “interference” if anyone abroad expressed concern at the way in which ordinary Sri Lankans were treated.

The Sri Lankan authorities shamelessly blamed smaller parties including the JVP and Communist Party for the violence which it had orchestrated, and banned them. The moderately nationalist Tamil United Liberation Front was also barred, with the aim of more-or-less eliminating effective opposition within or outside parliament while maintaining a rationale for repression.

By dismantling the usual checks and balances such as an independent judiciary, and promoting a culture in which people of different ethnic groups were encouraged to look on one another as enemies rather than valued fellow-Sri Lankans, those in power hoped to divide and rule, perhaps in perpetuity, a new dynasty. President Jayawardene and his associates set about building a gleaming new parliamentary complex in a new administrative capital, Sri Jayawardenapura. However things did not go according to plan.

Signs of hope amidst brutal militarism

Much has been written about the horrific events that followed.

Government troops continued to harass, detain without trial and sometimes kill Tamils. More survivors joined the armed nationalist movement. This largely abandoned its earlier idealistic rhetoric of how it was not against ordinary Sinhalese people, engaging in vicious acts of terror. Tiger supremo Prabhakaran eliminated potential rivals for leadership or forced them to flee, though some escaped and continued to fight. He too sought to rule like a mediaeval monarch but without the code of chivalry of ancient times that protected the defenceless. Child soldiers were recruited and ordered to kill themselves rather than surrender. Those Tamils in areas he controlled who were thought to be disobedient to him could end up imprisoned in dungeons or dead.

Communal divisions grew as Tamil nationalists managed to alienate the Muslims whose support they had sought and ended up attacking rather than recruiting them. Some Muslim men in turn joined pro-government home guards, proving ineffective in defending fellow-villagers but harming innocent Tamils.

Meanwhile in the South, where the government had suppressed peaceful dissent and done away with democracy while maintaining the trappings, disaffection spilled over into violence. The JVP took up arms again, winning support among alienated youth who saw that the form of development promoted by the government enriched its cronies but excluded them. It too turned to terrorism, including assassinating those it disagreed with politically, while the state’s paramilitary death squads which had operated in the East and North turned their attention to southern villages. Large numbers of men in particular “disappeared”, their bodies often burned beyond recognition or buried in mass graves so that their families did not even have the consolation of a funeral. Many had not even been involved in the rebellion. Dissidents from other backgrounds were also targeted.

Meanwhile the Indian government had been drawn in, since the Sri Lankan regime’s actions were driving refugees to India and leading to anger there, especially in the south, where many felt an affinity with Sri Lankan Tamils. Moreover, amidst the continual rivalry for influence among international powers, Sri Lanka’s alignment with the West included the risk of a military base in Trincomalee, threatening India’s security and status.

An Indian Peace Keeping Force ended up in Sri Lanka, to the disgust of prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, who went on to become president. A measure of devolution was agreed that would keep Sri Lanka intact but alleviate Tamil grievances to some extent. The IPKF was sucked into the fray and ended up killing yet more civilians.

By then, rival Tamil nationalist groups were forming shifting alliances with the Indian and Sri Lankan states to secure their own advantage and, in the case of the smaller groups, survival. The relentlessly power-hungry Prabhakaran fell out with the Indian government and joined forces with the Sri Lankan army against India, which ended up withdrawing. The Tigers used government arms and equipment to wipe out more of their fellow-Tamil nationalists before again turning against the state, massacring captured police officers to make their point. The JVP too had aligned themselves against Indian intervention, indulging in Sinhalese nationalist jingoism, but they were doing badly and ended up being heavily defeated.

By 1990 Sri Lanka outwardly seemed an example of the triumph of militarism. Ordinary members of the police and armed forces, and rebel groups, had in many cases been pressured into complicity with acts of extreme violence, at risk of otherwise themselves being branded as subversives or “traitors”. The Tigers massacred worshippers at prayer in mosques in the east and drove out Muslims in the northwest, despite the pleas of the Tamil neighbours with whom they lived in harmony. The Sri Lankan security forces bombed and shelled without taking care to minimise civilian casualties, in defiance of the laws governing armed conflict worldwide.

Ethnic cleansing had seemingly become part of life in Sri Lanka, along with kidnapping, torture and murder. Indeed assassination had become so much part of political culture that shadowy groups formed whose alignment was unclear, perhaps pro-JVP or Tiger or maybe with government links, and rumours abounded about who was responsible for various killings. For instance when government minister and Premadasa rival Ranjan Wijeratne was killed in an explosion in 1991, supposedly by the Tigers, there were differing theories as to who was actually responsible. Numerous people had been left displaced, injured, bereaved or traumatised.

However, in parallel to more visible displays of power, a different kind of resistance had been taking place, seemingly against impossible odds. An immediate priority in Sri Lanka and overseas was caring for survivors and trying to protect their future health and wellbeing as far as possible. But getting detainees tried or released and preventing further abuses was also an urgent need.

Across the island, among friends and family, in women’s and church groups, political parties and unions, voluntary organisations and, very importantly, networks of Buddhists who did not hold with the government’s distortion of their faith, people were sharing a different view of reality. Quietly or openly, people were discarding the official lies and bigotry and seeking to find, and communicate, the truth. This took considerable courage, and determination not to give in to despair, but it meant that an alternative perspective was available to those of their friends and neighbours who came to realise the havoc wrought by communalism and militarism.

Killings, disappearances and abuses of power were painstakingly documented and the authorities challenged, a risky process. There were martyrs along the way, many of them little-known but a few who had a high public profile.

These included dissidents within the UNP itself, such as municipal councillor Lakshman Perera, who reportedly teamed up with his friend Richard de Zoysa, a writer and broadcaster, to prepare to put on a play in 1990 satirising the government. Both were taken but only de Zoysa’s body was found. His mother became a prominent human rights campaigner, rallying other parents of those disappeared or killed, while many in the elite were shocked to discover that those in their own circles were not immune.

Meanwhile, already sizeable communities of Sri Lankan expatriates in countries such as the UK and Australia had been enlarged as refugees sought safety. These included Tamils both against and for the Tigers and Sinhalese dissidents, including lawyers who had defended alleged JVP members and been targeted by death squads. Campaigners who believed in human rights for all, democracy and ethnic equality were already active, some but not all of whom were of Sri Lankan descent.

Even overseas Sri Lankans who only believed in human rights for some people, and were unwilling to criticise the Tigers or JVP, had to couch their appeals to the public in the countries where they were living in terms of humanitarianism or justice. Thanks to the meticulous documentation by human rights activists in Sri Lanka itself, it was becoming increasingly difficult for even the UK government to pretend that all was well. It was also apparent that the island had not become a tranquil investors’ paradise. UK high commissioner in Colombo David Gladstone expressed dismay at the government’s gross violations of human rights and was expelled in 1991.

By then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had ended up amongst the exiles in London. She had left the SLFP to join a smaller party, the left-wing, anti-communalist Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya, headed by her husband, and actor and idealistic politician who boldly called for radical change. He had been assassinated in 1988, ostensibly by the JVP, and she had left for safety with her children. She joined the Committee for Democracy and Justice in Sri Lanka, an organisation to which I also belonged, which campaigned for all whose rights were violated, whether Tamil, Sinhalese or Muslim.

1994 and lessons for today

She returned to Sri Lanka in the early 1990s to form a People’s Alliance which brought together the SLFP, SLMP, LSSP, CP and other parties, committed to a restoration of democracy and human rights and to seeking a political rather than military settlement to the “ethnic question”.

By now the ripples of dissent had turned into a wave. Premadasa himself fell victim to the political culture of violence he had helped to promote when he was murdered by a suicide bomber in 1993.

On 16 August 1994, ordinary Sri Lankans were out on the streets in large numbers to prevent the rigging of the parliamentary election. The UNP was defeated and a measure of democracy restored. Later that year, Kumaratunga won the presidential election. The Tigers too were under pressure from people in the areas they controlled who were tired of the constant violence. For a while, the fighting was halted and people enjoyed the relief of peace.

Some of the hopes of that period, when a regime determined to hold on to power at any cost was peacefully vanquished and Sri Lanka was again affirmed as being a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, were not fulfilled. Prabhakaran had no intention of negotiating a settlement which did not give him dictatorial control over Tamils in the North and East, and the Tigers resumed hostilities in 1995. Tamil civilians were ultimately to pay a terrible price for his belligerence. Kumaratunga was also persuaded not to launch devolution proposals unilaterally but rather to agree these with the UNP, one of many mistakes she made.

Yet what occurred was remarkable and did bring about a longer-term change in national culture.

The situation now is different in many ways from that in the early 1990s. But human rights and democracy – including the independence of the judiciary – are under attack. Trade unionists and communities protesting against injustices face rough treatment and refusal to listen. Both the Sri Lankan state and the Tiger leaders behaved appallingly at the end of the civil war in 2009 but the supporters of both are in deep denial. Independent journalists and other dissidents have been murdered with impunity. Minorities are again under attack and a deadly brand of “Sinhala Buddhism” is being peddled with the connivance of the authorities.

Perhaps hope can be derived, and lessons learned, from 1994.

Firstly, attempts to defend the vulnerable and seek justice, however futile they may appear, may make a difference in the longer term.

Secondly, non-violent direct action is ordinarily a more effective strategy when pursuing a just cause than military action. This seems counter-intuitive and requires both courage and discipline.

Thirdly, building alliances based on principles such as human rights and democracy for all, and ability to empathise with the suffering and aspirations of other people, is vitally important. Those who work in isolation, focusing on a particular ethnic or religious identity or a particular cause that affects them directly, while not caring about others, are less likely to succeed.

Fourthly, changing a political and social culture that is indifferent to life and to the wellbeing of the poorest and most marginalised is important, as well as working at the level of laws and institutions. That includes acknowledging what took place before 1994 and trying to ensure that families finally get the chance to find out what happened to their loved ones, whoever killed them, as well as looking to the future.