Tamil-speaking women in Sri Lanka’s north and east pushed for accountability and truth during the country’s civil war but have been marginalised during the transitional justice process. The government and international actors must include their voices and address their injustices and difficult economic situation to ensure lasting peace.
President Sirisena 20 July signed into law Office on Missing Persons – first of four promised transitional justice mechanisms, although more steps needed for office to be operational – as protests by northern families of persons forcibly disappeared during civil war continued into sixth month. Sirisena early July appointed two senior officials known as supportive of reform, naming Austin Fernando as presidential secretary and Major General Mahesh Senanayaka as army commander. Group of senior monks 4 July announced opposition to new constitution, resolving that prominence accorded to Buddhism and unitary character of country should be retained along with executive powers of president. Sirisena 6 July issued assurance that they and other religious leaders would be allowed to review any draft constitution before it is presented to parliament, and saying country’s unitary state and special status for Buddhism would be preserved. PM 7 July said process to draft new constitution cannot stop, part of govt’s electoral mandate. Monks also called for delay in parliament’s consideration of bill to incorporate in domestic law international convention against enforced disappearances, claiming it could lead to prosecuting military personnel; govt postponed parliamentary debate on bill, officials said it will outlaw only future disappearances. Following 11-14 July visit, UN Special Rapporteur for Counter-terrorism and Human Rights Ben Emmerson issued statement characterising torture in Sri Lanka as “endemic and routine”, called Prevention of Terrorism Act “flagrant denial of justice” and said draft “Counter Terrorism Act” would still lead to violation of human rights. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe accused Emmerson of making factually inaccurate claims. Policeman shot and killed in Jaffna 22 July in apparent assassination attempt against High Court judge hearing high-profile rape and murder case. Despite months of opposition-backed protests and strikes by trade unions, govt 29 July signed $1.1bn debt-equity swap giving Chinese govt-owned corporation 70% stake in strategic Hambantota port and development zone.
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.
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.
There are lots of little initiatives under way [in Sri Lanka.] But they don't add up to a coherent or effective response to the desperate situation so many women are facing in the north and east.
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