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.
Public discontent with national unity govt rising amid serious drought and administrative inefficiencies. Collapse of large garbage dump in Colombo suburb on New Year’s day 14 April, killing over 30 and destroying over 100 houses, prompted widespread criticism of govt for ignoring warnings. Hopes for constitutional reform remained dim: reports emerged 11 April saying Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) informed Constitutional Assembly steering committee that it opposed any changes to constitution requiring referendum, suggesting President Sirisena has made little progress in persuading SLFP ministers to support new constitution. Protests on land and disappearances continued in Tamil majority north, with military agreeing to further modest land releases. Army 7 April returned 29 acres to owners in Valikamam, Jaffna; officials reportedly claimed another 5,250 acres still held by military in Jaffna alone. At 24 April meeting with govt ministers and Tamil politicians, Navy agreed initial release of 40 acres surrounding Catholic church in Mullikulam; 600 additional acres of agricultural land expected to be released in coming months. European Parliament 27 April defeated resolution to block Sri Lanka regaining EU GSP+ tariff benefits, virtually guaranteeing GSP+ renewal on 15 May. Following mid-April visit to Sri Lanka of EU MPs and letter from delegation to PM outlining steps still needed to meet human rights requirements before 15 May deadline, cabinet 25 April approved framework for Counter Terrorism Act, designed to replace Prevention of Terrorism Act, and amendment to Criminal Procedure Code. Human rights advocates criticised draft laws for broad definition of terrorism and range of clauses liable to abuse, and for being shared with EU but not with local population.
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