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Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military
Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Report 220 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military

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

Sri Lanka’s military is dominating the reconstruction of the Northern Province, weakening international humanitarian efforts and worsening tensions with the ethnic Tamil majority. Since the war ended in 2009, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into the province, but the local populations, mostly left destitute by the conflict, have seen only slight improvements in their lives. Instead of giving way to a process of inclusive, accountable development, the military is increasing its economic role, controlling land and seemingly establishing itself as a permanent, occupying presence. Combined with what many Tamils see as an effort to impose Sinhala and Buddhist culture across the whole of Sri Lanka and a failure to address many social aspects of rebuilding a society after conflict, these policies risk reviving the violence of past decades. Donors should put government accountability, the needs of returnees and the expansion of a democratic political role for the Tamil minority at the heart of their aid policies or risk contributing to a revival of ethnic extremism.

The heavy militarisation of the province, ostensibly designed to protect against the renewal of violent militancy, is in fact deepening the alienation and anger of northern Tamils and threatening sustainable peace. Major new military bases require the seizure of large amounts of public and private land and the continued displacement of tens of thousands. The growing involvement of the military in agricultural and commercial activities has placed further obstacles on the difficult road to economic recovery for northern farmers and businesses. When challenged by public protest, the military has shown itself willing to physically attack demonstrators and is credibly accused of involvement in enforced disappearances and other extrajudicial punishments.

The government points to the many new roads, rapid economic growth and numerous new infrastructure projects as signs of a post-war “northern spring”. For most of the more than 430,000 people who have returned to their lands and villages over the past two years, however, there has been little benefit. Residents of the Vanni region – the mainland of the Northern Province – returned to a land devastated by the final years of war: almost all homes and buildings were destroyed; most personal property was lost, damaged or looted. Most returnees remain in makeshift and inadequate shelters and many struggle to afford food, with few jobs or economic opportunities and little or no savings. Few schools and medical centres have been rebuilt. Women in the north face particularly difficult situations: female-headed households, many without permanent shelter or regular income, in the context of domination by a male, Sinhalese military are extremely vulnerable.

Gender-based violence and the Sinhalisation of the Northern Province through cultural and demographic changes have been addressed in Crisis Group’s two most recent papers on Sri Lanka, the latter a companion report to this one. This report examines the dominance of the military in the reconstruction of a region that was almost completely destroyed during decades of war. It also looks at the ways in which military priorities have shaped the government’s and the international community’s response to the deprivations of the local population. A focus on physical infrastructure over the rebuilding of a confident, open society benefits the military and the political elite – financially and otherwise – at the expense of the majority of the province’s population.

Government restrictions on aid and early recovery activities, often enforced by local military commanders, have prevented the effective delivery of many social services, including systematic and effective trauma counselling and other psycho-social support to families struggling to cope with the deaths and disappearance of tens of thousands of relatives. The military’s influential role over northern development policy – through the Presidential Task Force on Resettlement, Reconstruction and Security in the Northern Province (PTF) and at the district level – has marginalised the largely Tamil civil administration and led to ineffective and ethnically biased rebuilding. More generally, the government’s emphasis on large-scale development projects has diverted resources and energies away from the more immediate needs of returnees. Donors and development and aid agencies have done too little to speak out about or effectively challenge these policies, even as they undermine the prospects for sustainable return and recovery.

International engagement with Sri Lanka should prioritise the reestablishment of civilian and democratic governance in the north, and the end of the military control over development activities. Donors, particularly the multilateral agencies, China, India and Japan, should insist that their programs address the pressing needs of the more than 430,000 returnees in a manner that is transparent and accountable to the local population. They should press the government to lift onerous restrictions on the delivery and monitoring of assistance. UN agencies and non-gov­ern­men­tal organisations (NGOs), with the support of their donors, should more actively resist the government’s tight controls over their operations, better defend humanitarian principles, and push for the restoration of civilian authority throughout the north. Monitoring of projects must go beyond platitudes to ensure that reconstruction money does not fuel the culture of corruption and the erosion of democracy that have worsened despite the end of the war.

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.