Ten years after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan and Photographer Julie David de Lossy travelled 1,500km through ex-combat zones. They found a population finding ways to cope with their traumatic experiences and an extraordinary array of monuments to the war.
Fallout from country’s deadliest terror attack 21 April continued as intercommunal tensions and anti-Muslim violence rose. Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups 13-14 May launched major attack on Muslim businesses, homes and mosques in Minuwangoda and other towns in Northwest Province, burning or damaging hundreds of buildings in riots killing one; govt imposed nationwide curfew and arrested some 70 people, although security forces initially failed to prevent Sinhalese attackers and in some cases reportedly assisted rioters. Earlier, Catholics and Muslims clashed in Negombo (north west) 5 May, with Muslim-owned shops and houses damaged. Govt continued securitised response to April attacks; Chief of Defence Staff presented five-point plan to tackle “violent extremism” 7 May, including: “restoring security and intelligence services”; “regulating religious space to prevent radical preachers”; managing online extremist content and holding service providers accountable; “deradicalisation” efforts; and ending religiously-based schools. Security forces 23-26 May carried out raids in Colombo and other major towns, arresting over 100 and discovering multiple caches of weapons and equipment. Former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, declaring his candidacy for Nov presidential elections, used series of interviews to promise improved security and “eradication” of terrorism, accusing govt of contributing to April attacks by “dismantling” intelligence networks Gotabaya built as defence secretary. Army Commander 16 May defended decision to reinstate senior army intelligence official – one of some three dozen intelligence operatives suspended following arrest on suspicion of involvement in abductions and murders during govt of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – to assist with investigations into April attacks. President Sirisena 22 May pardoned Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, leader of radical Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena, who rights activists previously accused of inciting anti-Muslim violence; Gnanasara had served nine months of six-year sentence for contempt of court.
The return to power of controversial former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka's prime minister is unconstitutional and destabilising. International actors should make future security and economic cooperation contingent on parliament reconvening immediately to select a prime minister through legal channels.
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.
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.
The president has tried to weaken [Sri Lanka's Prime Minister] in many ways, including taking the police under his control. So it's entirely possible that the police wouldn't share information with ministers not aligned with the president.
It is particularly damaging that the reasons the U.S. Government gave for leaving the Human Rights Council – for being hypocritical and biased, echo so closely criticisms that the previous Sri Lankan Government and many Lankan politicians in opposition and in the current Government have made about the Council’s engagement with and resolutions on Sri Lanka. The U.S. withdrawal will have lasting damage and will strengthen governments and politicians across the globe who prefer to be left to their own devices, even when this involves violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens.
There is good reason to believe [the Sinhala Buddhists attacks in Sri Lanka] are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims.
Many Sinhalese and Buddhists have [the sense] that Sri Lanka [is a] Sinhala and Buddhist island, and [that] other communities are here on the sufferance of the majority.
The [Sri Lankan] government will need to figure out how to come together. They need to go back to the drawing board and return to their fundamental principles and start to deliver.
[Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa] has a strong core constituency and a good set of issues, whereas the government has to pull together a range of minority constituents.
Crisis Group’s first update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on Burundi’s dangerous referendum, militant Buddhists and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the impact of the Venezuelan crisis on the region, and the situation in Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
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