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Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights
Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Report 219 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights

The Sri Lankan military’s control over the political and economic life of the Northern Province is deepening the alienation and anger of northern Tamils and threatening sustainable peace.

Executive Summary

Deepening militarisation and the lack of accountable governance in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province are preventing a return to normal life and threaten future violence. Scene of the most bitter fighting in the civil war, the Tamil-majority north remains under de facto military occupation, with all important policies set by Sinhala officials in Colombo. The slow but undeniable movement of Sinhala settlers into the fringes of the north and other forms of government-supported “Sinhalisation” are reigniting a sense of grievance and weakening chances for a real settlement with Tamil and other minority parties to devolve power. The international community, especially those governments and aid agencies supporting the reconstruction of the area, should demand a fundamental change of course and should structure their assistance so as to encourage the demilitarisation and democratisation of the former war zone and full respect for minority rights.

With the massive number of troops in the north have come various forms of Sinhalisation. The almost entirely Tamil-speaking north is now dotted with Sinhala sign-boards, streets newly renamed in Sinhala, monuments to Sinhala war heroes, and even a war museum and battlefields that are open only to Sinhalese. Sinhala fishermen and businessmen are regularly given advantages not accorded to Tamils. The slow but steady movement of Sinhala settlers along the southern edges of the province, often with military and central government support and sometimes onto land previously farmed or occupied by Tamils, is particularly worrying. These developments are consistent with a strategy – known to be supported by important officials and advisers to the president – to change “the facts on the ground”, as has already happened in the east, and make it impossible to claim the north as a Tamil-majority area deserving of self-governance.

The Northern Province has been at the centre of a half-century of ethnic conflict. Comprising the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni region, the latter largely controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the 1990s until 2009, the province bore the brunt of the 25 years of war that came to a bloody end in May 2009, with up to 40,000 civilians killed and the military defeat of the LTTE. The north constitutes the core of the homeland claimed by Tamil nationalists and fought for by the guerrilla. Tamil demands for self-rule in the north (together with the now multi-ethnic east) have been bitterly contested by many Sinhalese; the failure to grant regional autonomy gave birth to demands for a separate state and led to civil war. While the conflict continued, large portions of the north functioned as a refuge for Tamils fleeing violence and discrimination in Sinhala-majority areas in the south, while also putting them under the control of the totalitarian LTTE. Some 75,000 Tamil-speaking Muslims expelled from the north by the movement in 1990 – now grown to as many as 200,000 – remain displaced from their homes and lands.

Deepening militarisation of the province presents a threat to long-term peace and stability. Far in excess of any legitimate need to protect against an LTTE revival, the militarisation of the north is generating widespread fear and anger among Tamils: indeed, the strategy being executed runs the risk of inadvertently resurrecting what it seeks to crush once and for all – the possibility of violent Tamil insurrection. The construction of large and permanent military cantonments, the growing involvement of the military in agricultural and commercial activities, the seizure of large amounts of private and state land, and the army’s role in determining reconstruction priorities are all serious concerns. They are discussed in a companion report, Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military.

This report examines how effective military control over the civil administration as well as control and surveillance of civil society, along with government-supported Sinhalisation, has undermined many of the expected benefits from an end to the war. Enforced disappearances, violent crackdowns on protestors in various towns and extrajudicial punishments have shown the sharper edge of military policing and revealed the deep mistrust on both sides of the civil-military and Tamil-Sinhala divides.

Continued Sinhalisation and militarisation of the north threaten to render pointless the stalled negotiations on devolution between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the clear favourite among Tamil voters in the north after victories in parliamentary and local government elections. Despite strong pressure from the Indian and U.S. governments, the government of President Ma­hin­da Rajapaksa shows little inclination to offer any tangible devolution of power to the north (or the multi-ethnic east); even the limited powers legally devolved to provincial councils under the current constitution are not in practice shared. In the absence of a functioning provincial council – despite repeated government promises of early elections – the north is ruled directly by the governor, a retired general and presidential appointee.

However important devolution of power ultimately will be, the longer current policies are allowed to remain in place, the harder it will be to achieve meaningful power-sharing with a Tamil-majority north. Government-TNA negotiations and international pressure should therefore focus first on the demilitarisation of the province, the reestablishment of civilian and democratic governance, and an end to any government-supported Sinhalisation. The government can begin on this agenda by implementing the many sensible recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and demonstrate its commitment by presenting a concrete roadmap for reconciliation and democratisation. Donors and development agencies can support these changes by speaking out clearly about the lack of democratic conditions in the north and by insisting that their programs be developed in consultation with local communities and leaders and implemented by an autonomous civil administration.

Colombo/Brussels, 16 March 2012

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.