Fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. To avoid leaders of the corrupt and violent former regime taking back control of the country, President Sirisena’s two-year-old “unity government” should put aside short-term calculations and return to reform.
New wave of militant Buddhist campaign of violence and intimidation against Muslims, which began in April, intensified, with at least a dozen violent arson attacks and vandalism against mosques and businesses; PM and president 23 May promised action to curb violence; law and order minister 24 May criticised police for failure to make arrests as leader of main militant group, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) went into hiding. Spike in attacks comes amid gradual collapse of momentum for reform and slow rise in resulting tensions. Tensions also evident around eighth anniversary commemorations of end of civil war 18/19 May, which saw starkly divergent events in Tamil north and east and Sinhala-majority south. Speaking to military and political leaders at formal “remembrance day” ceremony, President Sirisena promised no reduction in size or strength of military; commemorations in north, some framed as memorials to genocide, closely watched by police and intelligence services; event in Mullaitivu district at location of final battles forced to relocate, with Catholic priest organiser questioned by police for possible violation of anti-terrorist law. European Commission 16 May announced Sri Lanka had regained GSP+ tariff preferences despite govt failing to finalise new rights-compliant counter-terrorism legislation; new trade regime, which EU estimates is worth €300mn per year, came into effect 19 May. Cabinet reshuffle 22 May saw pro-reform foreign minister take over finance and media ministries, with former finance minister moving to foreign ministry. Cabinet 2 May approved long-delayed national reconciliation policy, published 9 May, which endorsed principle of “power-sharing as the means of reaching a political settlement ... [to address] the grievances and aspirations of all communities”. Late May rains brought major flooding to south west of island, with half a million people affected, more than 200 killed; govt criticised for lack of preparedness and disjointed relief efforts.
Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.
Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.
Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election promises more competition than was initially anticipated. But with that comes a great risk of violence. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through a peaceful election resulting in a government committed to serving the interests of all Sri Lankans.
Despite recent moves meant to show progress towards post-war reconciliation and respect for human rights, Sri Lanka’s government has not altered the authoritarian direction of its policies, and the rights and security of all communities remain under threat.
As the UN Human Rights Council prepares to open its 22nd session next week, the Sri Lankan government has made no meaningful progress on either reconciliation or accountability and instead has accelerated the country’s authoritarian turn, with attacks on the judiciary and political dissent that threaten long-term stability and peace.
There is work to be done by both Sinhala and Tamil activists [in Sri Lanka], in persuading Sinhalese voters to support the new constitution and make the case for a shared interest in ending impunity.
China sold a lot of weapons and lent a lot of money to Sri Lanka and remained a useful ally even in the Human Rights Council, all through the end of the war.
There was always a doubt about the commitment of the [Sri Lankan] president and prime minister. As time goes on, those doubts have grown.
With the UN’s help, Sri Lanka could yet build a state that respects the rule of law and protects the rights of all its citizens.
The bloom is off two years of hope that the rule of law can be restored for all and that a 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power, in the Sinhala majority island, can be rectified.
Originally published in The Diplomat Magazine
Originally published in Inside Story
Originally published in The Interpreter