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Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace
Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Briefing 99 / Asia

Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace

No matter which of the two main Sinhalese candidates wins Sri Lanka’s 26 January presidential election, the international community must take steps to ensure he addresses the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities in the interest of peace and stability.

Overview

Since the decisive military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka has made little progress in reconstructing its battered democratic institutions or establishing conditions for a stable peace. Eight months later, the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa have deepened rather than resolved the grievances that generated and sustained LTTE militancy. While the LTTE’s defeat and the end of its control over Tamil political life are historic and welcome changes, the victory over Tamil militancy will remain fragile unless Sinhalese-dominated political parties make strong moves towards a more inclusive and democratic state. The emergence of retired General Sarath Fonseka to challenge Rajapaksa in the 26 January presidential election has opened new space to challenge repressive government policies. But neither has offered credible proposals for political reforms that would address the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities. Whoever wins, donor governments and international institutions should use their development assistance to support reforms designed to protect the democratic rights of all of Sri Lanka’s citizens and ethnic communities.

The government’s internment of more than a quarter million Tamils displaced from the Northern Province – some for more than six months – was further humiliation for a population brutalised by months of ferocious fighting. The return by the end of 2009 of most of the displaced to their home districts, and the increased freedom of movement for the nearly 100,000 still in military-run camps, are important steps forward. However, the resettlement process has failed to meet international standards for safe and dignified returns. There has been little or no consultation with the displaced and no independent monitoring; many returns have been to areas not cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance; inadequate financial resources have been provided for those returning home; and the military continues to control people’s movements. These and other concerns also apply to the estimated 80,000 Muslims forcibly expelled from the north by the LTTE in 1990, some of whom have begun to return to their homes.

The UN and donor governments should insist more strongly that all resettlement is done according to established guiding principles. Donors should end assistance to any camps where full freedom of movement is not allowed and condition additional aid on an effective monitoring role for UN agencies and NGO partners. India, Japan, Western donors, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank should tie additional development assistance to an inclusive and consultative planning process for the reconstruction of the north. Access by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the more than 12,000 Tamils held in irregular detention centres on suspicion of ties to the LTTE is also essential.

The government’s approach to the development and reconstruction of the north and east is contributing to minority fears and alienation. Government plans remain unclear, with local communities and political leaders not consulted and even donors not informed of overall reconstruction plans. Strong military influence over policies, tight military control over the population and restrictions on local and international NGOs increase the risk of land conflicts, with the strong possibility of demographic changes that would dilute the Tamil character of the north. No real space has been given to Tamil and Muslim political or community leaders in the north and very little in the east.

The Rajapaksa government has initiated no political reforms to address Tamil and other minorities’ concerns. The government-sponsored All Party Representative Committee (APRC) designed to craft constitutional reforms has in effect ended with no sign of an alternative process. Tamil and Muslim parties remain weak and divided, although recent encouraging initiatives to develop a common platform and build trust among Tamil-speaking parties deserve support. Inside and outside Sri Lanka, many Tamils remain angry at the lack of accounting or justice for the thousands of civilians killed in the final months of the war. Most of the million-strong diaspora is still committed to a separate state and many would be willing to support renewed violence.

The brutal nature of the conflict, especially in its closing months, has undermined Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions and governance. All ethnic communities are suffering from the collapse of the rule of law. Disappearances and political killings associated with the government’s counter-insurgency campaign have been greatly reduced since the end of the war. Impunity for abuses by state officials continues, however, and fear and self-censorship among civil society activists and political dissidents remain widespread. Rajapaksa’s government continues to maintain and use the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations to weaken its political opposition.

The campaign of retired General Sarath Fonseka has put the Rajapaksas on the defensive and united a long-dormant opposition. Alleging corruption and other abuses of power by the Rajapaksa family, Fonseka and the parties supporting him promise major reforms, including the end of emergency rule and the abolition of the Executive Presidency itself. However, Fonseka’s candidacy suffers from contradictions and poses grave risks. Promises made to Tamil parties to restore civilian control over land policies and the resettlement process in the north threaten to put Fonseka at odds with his allies in the military and run directly counter to Fonseka’s consistently Sinhala nationalist policies over the course of his career. The numerous allegations that General Fonseka was involved in attacks on journalists and other human rights violations undermine his calls for reforms and an end to impunity. It remains an open question whether the ideologically diverse set of parties that have endorsed Fonseka will be able to work together or influence his policies should he win.

International actors need to press for accountability for abuses by both sides during the war as well as challenge the government’s post-war policies. Numerous states with insurgencies have begun to look at Sri Lanka as a model. India and Western governments may yet come to regret giving Sri Lanka the green light – and even assisting it – to fight a “war on terror” prior to the government agreeing to political reforms or showing any commitment to the rule of law, constitutional norms or respect for human rights. The precedent can and should be challenged. Donors should condition further development assistance on governance reforms designed to curb impunity and make government accountable to citizens of all communities. This could eventually help open the space for Tamil and Muslim political leaders to organise effectively now that the LTTE is no longer there to control their agenda.

Colombo/Brussels, 11 January 2010

Op-Ed / Asia

Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

The bloody end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has been marked across the country this month in very different ways, highlighting both the tentative progress made over the past year and the profound divisions still be overcome seven years into peacetime.

Across the north and east, Tamils held public events to remember the victims killed during the final weeks of the government offensive in May 2009. While officially sanctioned on a much wider scale than last year, these commemorations often took place under the watchful, often intimidating, eyes of the military or police.

In Colombo, meanwhile, president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sponsored a War Hero commemoration alongside the armed forces, police and civil security. But the commemoration’s cultural program, the Reminiscence of Reconciliation, represented a notable shift from the triumphalist, military-led Victory Day celebrations presided over by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose administration criminalised all Tamil remembrance activities.

Despite the welcome change in tone and moves to improve relations between the majority Sinhalese community and Tamils, who represent 15 per cent of the country’s population, the “national unity” government needs to redouble its efforts to promote reconciliation. In fact, much more work remains to reverse the damage done to all communities in Sri Lanka by the decade of Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule.

Addressing the painful legacy of the war is just one aspect of an extremely ambitious agenda that includes drafting a new constitution, strengthening the rule of law and rebuilding democratic institutions. But it remains unclear how far the government is willing and able to go to tackle the hardest reforms, particularly justice for wartime abuses and greater devolution of political power to deal with the ethnic conflict.

Worryingly, the government appears to be backtracking on vital plans for transitional justice. The enormity of the crimes committed makes them impossible to ignore, yet difficult for the military, and most Sinhalese, to accept responsibility for.

Both sides committed atrocities throughout the many years of war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. In September 2015, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a detailed report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, documenting a “horrific level of violations and abuses” by government forces, pro-government paramilitaries and the separatist Tamil Tigers. The long list of crimes included indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children, and denial of humanitarian assistance. The report confirmed victim and survivor accounts of systematic war crimes committed during the final months and immediate aftermath of the civil war.  

The new government – brought to power by elections in January and August 2015 – was prepared for these explosive findings, and announced its ambitious reform agenda at the start of the Human Rights Council session. It agreed to the Council’s groundbreaking resolution on promoting reconciliation and accountability, which was adopted by consensus. Key commitments included the creation of a truth commission, reparations and missing persons offices and, most controversially, an independent special court for war crimes with “participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”

The resolution was potentially transformative, yet the government has missed a series of deadlines for its implementation and is sending mixed messages about its overall strategy for justice and reconciliation. Doubts about the government’s political will are growing domestically and internationally.

Dealing honestly with the legacy of the civil war is hard and painful work, complicated by Sri Lanka’s internecine political rivalries. President Sirisena is struggling to counter a faction of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party that remains loyal to his predecessor. Meanwhile, strains are growing within the unity government coalition.

The government is also fearful of angering the military and security services, which maintain a dangerous degree of autonomy. Recent arrests of Tamils under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act – which the government promised the UN it would repeal – and continued reports of the torture of detainees have sown concern about the government’s ability to rein in abuses. Many Tamils and rights activists are growing increasingly discouraged by what they see as slow progress.

Changing attitudes on all sides will be difficult. Sinhala nationalism remains entrenched within the state and society, and this in turn feeds Tamil nationalism and, for some, continued dreams of a separate state. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform, there is little public acknowledgement by Tamil political activists of the lasting pain caused by Tamil Tiger atrocities.

Despite the deep obstacles, though, now is the best opportunity in Sri Lanka’s recent history for the country to work together to build a lasting peace. To seize the moment, the government must reinvigorate the “good governance” agenda that won it popular support in the first place.

Measures to address the war’s legacy need to be pursued and presented as an essential aspect of the broader agenda to strengthen the rule of law, end impunity and tackle corruption and abuse of power. These issues resonate across the country, from the Tamil-majority areas of the north to the Sinhalese heartland in the south. The government should launch a coordinated outreach campaign to educate communities about the value of transitional justice and its links to other reforms, while giving stronger backing to the nationwide public consultations on designing reconciliation and justice measures.

Continued international support is essential to keep the reform process on track – both by building Sri Lanka’s technical capacity for reforms and reminding the government of its promises when politics threaten to win out over principle.

In the end, though, it is Sri Lankans who will lead the ongoing effort to make a more durable peace. There is no better place to start than by acknowledging the suffering and injustice experienced by all communities – and the equal right to remember and mourn.