Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 21, 12 February 2020

Sri Lanka: The President drops Tamil national anthem from independence celebrations
MJ Unnikrishnan

In the news 

On 4 February, the Sri Lankan government dropped the constitutionally recognized Tamil national anthem while celebrating the 72nd independence day celebrations. This marked a shift from the previous government’s policy of accommodating the Tamil version of the national anthem in national celebrations and functions.

The President, during his address to the nation on the same day, vowed against discrimination on any basis. “As the President today, I represent the entire Sri Lankan nation irrespective of ethnicity, religion, party affiliation or other differences. I have the vision that I must serve as the leader of the country looking after all citizens rather than serve as a political leader concerned only about a particular community”, Rajapaksa said. He also added, “We will not allow extremist organisations that pave the way for terrorism to further function in the country.”

Issues at large

Since 1948, the Tamil version of the national anthem has not been sung till 2016. Even after 2016, the Sinhala authorities were reluctant to allow Tamil version to be sung in schools. Effective bridging of the gap between the Tamil majority northern peninsula and the Lankan mainland has not happened yet, a decade after the end of Eelam war. 

‘Sri Lanka Thaaye’, the Tamil translation of Sinhala version ‘Sri Lanka Matha’, was first sung in 2016 aiming to boost ethnic harmony while Maithripala Sirisena was the President. The then opposition leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sirisena’s party opposed the move. Later in November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the Presidential elections. On his first independence celebration, after he took charge of the office of the President, he removed the Tamil version of the national anthem. 
Rajapaksa brothers led the stringent military action in the Tamil dominant regions and defeating Tamil Tigers in 2009. They are now back in power with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. They have been criticized for their lack of support to minorities. The decades-old ethnic deadlock in Sri Lanka proves to be a hard nut to crack. “The Tamil anthem is not just another song, but the Sri Lankan identity of Tamil speaking community”, commented an opposition MP Mano Ganesan. 
In perspective  

First, the ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka still prevail, and the Easter bomb blasts aggravated the situation causing the religious gaps to widen. This recent action of the state to avoid the Tamil national anthem will setback the reconciliation efforts. 

Second, the Rajapaksas are less likely to address the interests of the Tamil community. The minorities fear an iron fist rule by the state as both the offices of President and Prime Minister are held by the Rajapaksa brothers and see this action as initiation of that. 

Last, Gotabaya, during his election campaign, promised equal consideration and rights for all Sri Lankan citizens but was not able to win the minority votes. With the general elections approaching later this year, the Rajapaksa brothers are likely to showcase right-wing politics to secure a majority.  

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