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Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever
Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Report 209 / Asia

Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s authoritarian and Sinhalese nationalist post-war policies are undermining prospects for reconciling Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities, weakening democracy for all Sri Lankans and increasing the risk of a return to violent conflict.

Executive Summary

Two years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is further from reconciliation than ever. Triumphalist in its successful “war on terror”, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has refused to acknowledge, let alone address, the Tamil minority’s legitimate grievances against the state. The regime destroyed the Tigers by rejecting the more conciliatory approach of prior governments and adopting the insurgents’ brutality and intolerance of dissent. Now, contrary to the image it projects, the government has increasingly cut minorities and opponents out of decisions on their economic and political futures rather than work toward reconciliation. As power and wealth is concentrated in the Rajapaksa family, the risks of renewed conflict are growing again. Partners, especially India, Japan, the U.S., UK, European Union (EU) and UN, should send a strong message against increasing authoritarianism, condition aid on transparency and restored civilian administration in north and east and support accountability, including an international inquiry into alleged atrocities by both sides in the war’s final stages.

Much has improved with the end of the war in May 2009. The paralysing threat of suicide attacks on civilians in the south has ended with the destruction of the LTTE, while Tamil families no longer fear the Tigers’ forced recruitment of their children and other abuses. Economic and political security is better for some segments of society. But decades of political violence and civil war have polarised Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities and undermined institutions, particularly those involved in law and order. Each of the major ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – has suffered immensely. Conflicts have not just left hundreds of thousands dead, injured or displaced but have also entrenched fears and misunderstandings in each community.

Progress toward reconciliation in this environment was always going to be difficult. It has been made much more so by the post-war policies of President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers. With emergency and anti-terrorism laws still in place, they continue to violently repress the media and political opponents, while manipulating elections and silencing civil society. Constitutional reforms strong-armed through parliament have removed presidential term limits and solidified the president’s power over the attorney general, judiciary and various “independent” commissions. Northern areas once ruled by the LTTE are now dominated by the military, which has taken over civil administration and controls all aspects of daily life – undermining what little remains of local capacity. Democratic political activities in the north and east have been suppressed through the use of violent and corrupt ethnic Tamil proxies and other Rajapaksa loyalists. Development of those areas has been conducted without local consultation; indeed many Tamil residents feel that it is more like the extraction of the spoils of war than a real effort to improve livelihoods and build trust.

To deflect criticism of its unlawful conduct in the final stages of the war the government established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Promoted as a mechanism for both accountability and reconciliation, it will produce neither. In April 2011, a UN panel of experts found that the LLRC lacks the independence, mandate and witness protection capacity to serve as an accountability process for the many credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides and recommended an international investigation. Correcting the LLRC’s flaws would require not only a new commission or other mechanism but also a reversal of the Rajapaksas’ core post-war policies. While the LLRC has served as a platform for airing some grievances, it has failed to win confidence domestically and can do little to aid reconciliation. Sri Lankans know better than anyone that such a commission is ultimately powerless.

Despite Sri Lanka’s long history of failed and ignored ad hoc inquiries, the international community seems willing to gamble on another. While India, the U.S. and UK have recently signalled greater scepticism of the government’s efforts, so far they and other supporters are repeating the mistake they made during the war. There was little real effort to prevent the atrocities at the end of the fighting, in part because the LTTE was so reviled but also because it was convenient to believe President Rajapaksa’s assurances that there would be political reform and conciliatory policies after a military victory. Now they risk falling again for the government’s delaying tactics and promises of accountability through the LLRC and political compromise through talks with Tamil political parties. So long as there continues to be no progress on either issue, large portions of the Tamil diaspora will remain convinced their community needs the protection that only a separate state can offer and will continue to ignore the LTTE’s share of responsibility for the atrocities at the end of the war and for the destruction of Tamil political society.

While the government tries to sell its “reconciliation” plans, the realities on the ground in the north and east are ominous. Many households are now headed by women, who are extremely vulnerable under military rule. Much of the aid promised has not arrived, and all is strictly controlled by the military. Over two thirds of the nearly 300,000 displaced civilians interned in the north at the end of the war have been sent home, but mostly to areas devoid of the most basic amenities. Another 180,000 of those and others displaced in prior stages of the war are still in camps or other temporary settings. Of the 12,000 or more alleged LTTE cadres detained at the end of the war, 3,000 are still undergoing “rehabilitation”. Hundreds more LTTE suspects, many detained for years without charge, are held separately. There is little transparency about the numbers or identities of post-war detainees, and upon release, many are closely monitored and harassed or pressured to act as informants. Families throughout the north and east are still searching for missing relatives.

Tamils are not the only community to find themselves marginalised. There have been no official efforts to address the conflicts that flared within Sinhalese communities in the south. Many disappearances have not been investigated; few families have been adequately compensated. No one has been held accountable. Similarly, Muslims expelled from the north or relatives of those murdered in the east by the LTTE have seen little in the way of resettlement, compensation or justice. Land disputes exacerbated by the conflicts affect all communities, but little has been done to design sustainable solutions. Concerns about corruption and increasing cost of living only add to the wounds of the past.

Reconciliation will slip further out of reach if the government maintains its policies. As part of broader efforts to counter false narratives put forth by it and by Tiger apologists alike and to restore the badly damaged rule of law, Sri Lanka’s partners should take immediate steps. Aid money should not be delivered without firm knowledge of how it will be spent, which requires extensive monitoring. Assertions that the government is moving towards reconciliation must be tested against realities on the ground, which means insisting on access. The Rajapaksas’ authoritarianism must be challenged directly and publicly, with strong messages against retrograde constitutional changes and centralisation of power. An international inquiry into alleged atrocities by both the government and LTTE is needed; UN member states should actively work to establish one, unless the government shows by the end of 2011 that it is willing and able to ensure accountability on its own. Sri Lanka eventually should also have an independent, inclusive truth commission to examine injustices suffered by all communities. It requires a fair accounting of its violent history to avoid repeating it.

Colombo/Brussels, 18 July 2011

 

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former secretary to the Ministry of Defence and presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds election posters at the party's election office in Biyagama, in the outskirts of the capital Colombo. AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression. During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely to bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Posters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa next to rubble from burned-out Muslim-owned shops in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. CRISISGROUP/Alan Keenan

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins. In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution. Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans. During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute