Why Sri Lanka’s Win at the Asian Netball Championships is Important for Post-War Reconciliation

Early this month, Sri Lanka celebrated taking home gold in the Asian Netball Championships after beating hosts Singapore 69-50. The tear drop island added the title to their four titles won in previous years, becoming the most successful team of the tournament.

One of the stand-out players of the Sri Lanka team was Tharjini Sivalingam. Dubbed Asia’s tallest netballer, at six feet ten inches, Sivalingam has been an integral part of Sri Lankan netball since her debut in 2009. Since then, Sivalingam has been awarded World’s Best Shooter in 2011, and most recently won Player of the Tournament at the Asian Netball Championships. She is also the only Sri Lankan to play netball for a foreign club after being granted a scholarship in Australia to play for the City West Falcons. 

Melody Teo of Singapore tries in vain to stop Sri Lankan player Tharjini Sivalingam

Melody Teo of Singapore tries in vain to stop Sri Lankan player Tharjini Sivalingam

However, the importance of Sivalingam in the Sri Lankan team goes beyond netball. In a predominantly Sinhalese team, Sivalingam is the only Tamil. Tamils, an ethnic group native to the island have been living alongside the Sinhalese in relative harmony for centuries up until the early 20th century when British colonists sought to separate the two in government, leading to hostility. Animosity perpetuated after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, and as a minority, Tamils felt the full brunt of bigoted laws such as the Ceylon Citizenship Act and Sinhala Only Act. Tensions reached boiling point in the summer of 1983 after Sinhalese mobs propagated anti-Tamil riots, which saw Tamils wounded, killed, and Tamil-owned businesses burned and ransacked in retaliation to Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) killing thirteen members of the Sri Lankan Army. The event known as ‘Black July’ is widely thought to be the elicit factor that instigated the 26-year civil war, which saw the LTTE carry out assassinations on prominent Sinhalese and Tamil politicians whom they believed to be traitors, as well as several attacks on civilians as they fought to create an independent Tamil state on the island. The war came to an abrupt end in the spring of 2009 after LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed in an ambush orchestrated by Sri Lankan Armed Forces.

Sivalingam, who has first-hand experience of the burden of the civil war after her home was damaged in 1994, has assisted in post-war peace building efforts after attending a ceremony to launch the construction of a sports complex in Kilinochchi, a Tamil populated region. In her own words, Sivalingham tells The Sunday Morning about not feeling any antagonism for being Tamil, as fans rallied around the team during their victorious route to the Asian Netball Championships Final “This time in Singapore, every time I scored, every supporter of ours cheered and encouraged me. I noticed in their faces that they were not worried at least a bit about the fact that I’m Tamil. I think they always took me as a Sri Lankan. We all felt as one.”

As post-war reconciliation continues, Sri Lanka’s triumphant run at the Asian Netball Championships offers a positive glimpse of the future of the country as Sri Lankans and Tamils united to celebrate the win. It also exhibited to the nation of that success can be attained when the two groups work together. 

Netball programmes, such as One Netball which supports the integration of Sinhalese and Tamil girls through the sport, will continue as peacemaking plans proceed nine years on from the end of the war. 

Words by Teshani Nanayakkara – follow her on Twitter