Opinion: On the Ousting of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

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·Samanta Krishnapillai
·9 min read
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The President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as well as the PM, has been forced to resign after months of protests regarding his corrupt leadership that resulted in an economic crisis and country-wide shortages of essential goods and services that affected everyone in the country for months.

What’s frustrating to me, as the eldest daughter of a Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant and refugee, is that the reporting on Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to skip the fact that he’s a war criminal who had a significant leadership in the 2009 genocide of Tamils.

Don’t remember the 2009 Sri Lankan genocide of the Tamil people? Try entering “protest of 2000+ Tamil Canadians who walk onto and take over Gardiner in Toronto” into your memory because that usually pulls something up.

I’ve come to realize what we’ve been told to call a “civil war” is actually decades of state sanctioned violence and systemic oppression of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder of the On Canada Project

I already take issue with the fact that so much of our reporting on low-income countries that currently find themselves in a state of turmoil, corruption, etc — which often gets them labelled as uncivilized by Western media — erases the fact that the current state of affairs in these countries directly correlates to the occupation of their land by European colonizers. I don’t like that we already leave this out, but I acknowledge it takes a certain level of self-awareness to report like this and most, if not all, European colonizers and settler-colonial states, continue to choose not to do the work.

But to ignore the 2009 genocide of an entire community of people, after years of what the media often labels as “civil war” — but what I’ve come to realize is actually state-sanctioned violence and systemic oppression against the Tamil minority following independence from the British — is sloppy journalism at best and erasure of an entire community's struggle at worst.

People often act like if the Tigers just politely asked the government for the liberation of Tamil people that it would have been granted.Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder of the On Canada Project

In 2009 the international community largely ignored (as in they heard the reports, and just didn’t care) the rapidly escalating violence in Sri Lanka. Tamils today often reference the Mullivaikkal massacre when speaking of this time period. I’m oversimplifying, but the Sri Lankan government took an aggressive approach to exterminate the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, an organization that formed in response to the state-sanctioned violence and discrimination experienced by Tamils since the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948.

Look, the Tigers get a lot of criticism, notably from people who have never had to fight to protect their human rights and Indigenous land. I’ll accept that the Tigers were an imperfect organization, but being a freedom fighter is a messy job where morals are often blurred as you try to gain justice and human rights for your people. What I find frustrating with popular criticism of the Tigers is that people often act like if the Tigers just politely asked the government for the liberation of Tamils that it would have been granted.

The government declared regions no-fire zones and urged civilians to take refuge there before bombing those very regions.Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder of the On Canada Project

The events in 2009 were an opportunity for the government to exterminate Tamil civilians under the guise of finding and charging the Tamil Tigers. The government bombed hospitals, captured and executed the 12-year-old son of the LTTE leader, stripped civilians and soldiers when they were captured and then executed them when they were naked and blindfolded, soldiers raped women and children and bombed civilian bunkers. 300 000 people were in displacement camps, which at the time was the largest in the world. Most infamously, the government declared regions a no-fire zone and encouraged civilians to move there for safety before bombing these very regions. Entire multi-generational families were wiped out, children orphaned, hundreds of thousands injured, and people are still missing to this day.

Leaked US Embassy documents show discussions between the then security of defence, now president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, where the US embassy urged the Sri Lankan government to accept a mediated surrender, to which Rajapaksa said “we’re beyond that now.” He was asked to allow for time to evacuate the wounded and dead and rejected it. It was clear to anyone watching that the government had the Tigers and innocent Tamil civilians on their knees and instead of ending the war, they decided to try and end my people.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, by definition, is a war criminal. And yet he took over for his brother as President and remained such until recently being ousted. The ousting of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Prime Minister will likely end the Rajapaksa dynasty (many members of his family hold prominent cabinet roles in his administration) that had been masquerading as a democracy for decades.

Seeing Gotabaya be forced to flee has been oddly cathartic, and yet, still a poor substitution for the justice our community deserves.Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder of the On Canada Project

My father said something interesting to me yesterday, in a rare voicing of a reflection on his experience in the 1983 riots. He said he was happy Rajapaksa had to flee his home as protestors took over it. He said he was happy that Rajapaksa had to have that fear, however brief, that so many Tamils have experienced in Sri Lanka to this day. The fear for your family’s safety, your belongings, your home, your dignity, and your personal safety. The terror and trauma that creates in your heart.

For many in the Tamil diaspora, myself included, seeing Gotabaya Rajapaksa being forced to flee has been oddly cathartic, and yet, still a poor substitution for the justice our community deserves.

So, as you talk about and report on these protests that resulted in Gotabaya Rajapaksa's resignation, I ask that you please don’t erase his active participation and leadership in the 2009 genocide of the Tamil people because Gotabaya's corruption, violence and failures as a leader predate this current economic crisis.

After the ouster

There is something incredibly sticky around the fact that Tamils in Sri Lanka, have essentially been living as second-class citizens on their ancestral lands. This was happening for a long time but I’ll continue to focus on the 2009 Genocide.

Protesting, and protesting in a disruptive nature, is a privileged, and one that certainly isn’t afforded to Tamils in Sri Lanka.Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder of the On Canada Project

I remember the visuals and stories coming out of Sri Lanka during the 2009 Genocide and yet, there was no mass protest, no show of solidarity. It wasn’t until Gotabaya did something that directly impacted the majority population group, the Sinhalese people, that a major protest of this nature occurred. Protesting in this way is not something Tamils in Sri Lanka, outside of the Jaffna region, could have done in 2009 without support from the Sinhalese people, as protesting, and protesting in a disruptive nature, is a privileged, and one that certainly isn’t afforded to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled Gotabaya has been forced to go bye-bye, but that doesn’t change the discomfort at seeing that people in Sri Lankan can rise to action, just not when their Tamil neighbours are being slaughtered.

After countries won back their independence from the very people who stole it, you'll often see division between communities of people native to the land. Most of these divisions did not exist pre-colonization.Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder of the On Canada Project

The reason this wasn’t part of the original passage above (and instead was added later, after encouragement from a cousin) is that I don’t want to encourage further division between two communities of people, both of whose ancestors co-existed on our tiny island long before they were colonized three times by European scum.

I know that the colonial playbook includes "divide et impera," meaning divide and rule. Divide et impera is the systematic policy of formulating separate consciousnesses among the two communities, with overt sponsorship from the colonizer. It is the intentional division and hate between local ethnic groups by the colonizer so that these groups don’t work together against their oppressor.

If you look around the world today, after countries won back their independence from the very people who stole it, you'll often see such division between communities of people native to the land. Most of these divisions did not exist pre-colonization. For example, the British intentionally orchestrated the division between the Hindu Majority and Muslim minority in India during the colonization of India. Read more about that here.

I don’t see Tamil Canadians, who literally share a colonizer with the Indigenous peoples of this land, show up in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder of the On Canada Project

Further, I’m hesitant to criticize the Sinhalese back home because I know Tamils aren’t perfect either. The land that we now call Canada was also colonized by the British, and the people Indigenous to this land, the First Nations, Metis and Inuit, live essentially as second-class citizens here, as in right this very second.

And yet, I don’t see Tamil Canadians, who literally share a colonizer with the Indigenous peoples of this land, show up in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

We may not have white privilege, but in Canada we do benefit from the fact this land was colonized and yet we do not use the privilege that affords us to show up in solidarity with communities being systemically oppressed by our government, such as Indigenous, Black and Trans folk, as well as disabled people and those who are living below the poverty line.

Knowing this, I struggle to be angry at the Sinhalese people and choose instead to direct my frustration at the media, the Sri Lankan government and of course, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family.

I hope in adding this passage, that Tamils, and really anyone whose ancestors were colonized, realize we have privilege in the settler-colonial states our families took refuge in.

We should be using that privilege to both help our people back home and the Indigenous peoples of our new home.

Samanta Krishnapillai is the founder, executive director and editor-in-chief of the On Canada Project.