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Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution
Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
Report 239 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution

The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil political leaders or consider reasonable forms of power sharing is heightening ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for sustainable peace.

Executive Summary

The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil leaders or otherwise address legitimate Tamil and Muslim grievances is increasing ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for lasting peace. The administration, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Mahinda Rajapaksa, has refused to honour agreements with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), broken promises to world leaders and not implemented constitutional provisions for minimal devolution of power to Tamil-speaking areas of the north and east. Militarisation and discriminatory economic development in Tamil and Muslim areas are breeding anger and increasing pressure on moderate Tamil leaders. Tamil political parties need to remain patient and keep to their moderate course, while reaching out more directly to Muslims, Upcountry Tamils and Sinhalese. International actors should press the government more effectively for speedy establishment of an elected provincial council and full restoration of civilian government in the north, while insisting that it commence serious negotiations with elected Tamil representatives from the north and east.

Many believed that the end of the war and elimination of the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) would open space for greater political debate and moderation among Tamils, while encouraging the government to abandon the hardline Sinhalese nationalism it had cultivated to support its war efforts and agree to devolve meaningful power to the majority Tamil-speaking northern and eastern provinces. While there has been an increase in democratic and moderate voices among Tamils, the government has failed to respond in kind.

Instead, it has adopted a policy of promising negotiations and expanded devolution in discussions with India, the U.S., and the UN Secretary-General, while denying these same things when addressing its Sinhala voting base. It has refused to negotiate seriously with TNA representatives, repeatedly failing to honour promises and ultimately breaking off talks in January 2012. Since then it has demanded that the TNA join the government’s preferred vehicle, a parliamentary select committee (PSC), a process clearly designed to dilute responsibility and buy time. Three-and-a-half years after the end of the war, President Rajapaksa continues to delay the long-promised election to the northern provincial council – elections the TNA would be nearly certain to win. Despite repeated public promises, the president has refused to grant even the limited powers ostensibly given to provincial councils under the constitution’s thirteenth amendment. Instead, he and other senior officials have begun to discuss the amendment’s possible repeal or replacement by even weaker forms of devolution.

Even as the government refuses to respond to longstanding demands for power sharing, Tamil political power and identity are under sustained assault in the north and east. While Tamil leaders and nationalist intellectuals base their demands for political autonomy on the idea that these regions are the traditional areas of Tamil habitation, government figures, including the president’s powerful brother and defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, follow a long line of Sinhala nationalist thinking and explicitly reject that the north has any privileged Tamil character. Military and economic policies have been institutionalising this ideological position with vigour.

The de facto military occupation of the northern province and biased economic development policies appear designed to undermine Tamils’ ability to claim the north and east as their homeland. For many Tamils, this confirms their long-held belief that it was only the LTTE’s guns that placed their concerns and need for power sharing on the political agenda. In the face of the government’s resistance to a fair and negotiated settlement, TNA leaders have come under increasing pressure from their constituencies to adopt more confrontational language and tactics. Growing demands for the right to self-determination for the Tamil nation and hints that separatist goals have not been permanently abandoned have, in turn, provoked harsh reactions and expressions of distrust from Sinhala leaders.

The situation is likely to remain difficult, with major negotiating breakthroughs unlikely in the near term. Nonetheless, the international community – especially India and the U.S. – should increase pressure on President Raja­paksa to significantly reduce the numbers and influence of the military in the north and hold credible northern provincial council elections in advance of the March 2013 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. The president should also be pressed to agree to the TNA’s reasonable terms for joining the PSC and begin implementing the thirteenth amendment meaningfully. Effective and lasting power sharing will almost certainly require forms of devolution that go beyond the current unitary definition of the state. Yet if skilfully handled, the current political conjuncture, both domestic and international, holds out possibilities to convince the government to concede greater space and ratchet back some of the worst abuses.

For the TNA to improve Tamils’ chances of receiving a fair deal from the state and, ultimately, some significant degree of power sharing, it will need to articulate grievances and the value of devolved powers more clearly and in ways that larger numbers of the other main communities – in particular Sinhalese and Muslims – can understand and accept as reasonable. In particular, the demand for autonomy needs to be framed in ways that can reassure at least some large minority of Sinhalese that the threat of secession is no longer there. It is also important for Tamil political leaders of all parties to begin mending relations with Muslims, so badly damaged by LTTE killings and the expulsion of all Muslims from the northern province in 1990. The TNA should insist that Muslim representatives be given a central role in negotiations on expanded devolution of power.

Finally, the Tamil leadership needs to find both practical and rhetorical ways of building links between its struggle for rights and power sharing and the growing unease among Sinhalese at the corruption and abuse of power characteristic of the Rajapaksa government. The Tamil struggle for rights and freedom is likely to succeed only when the broader national struggle for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, including the depoliticisation of the judiciary and the police, has made substantial progress. Joining together efforts to solve the two different forms of the “national question” should become an imperative part of the struggle for Tamil rights.

Brussels/Colombo, 20 November 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

When UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon touched down in Sri Lanka yesterday, he arrived in a very different country from the one he last saw, immediately following the end of the civil war. Back then, in May 2009, he was shocked by the physical devastation and human toll of the final months of war, when as many as 40,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in the north and east. The internal review he ordered faulted the United Nations for its “systemic failure” to protect human rights and civilian lives at the war’s end.

Today, much of the physical damage has been repaired. Since 2015, a new government led by president Maithripala Sirisena has championed a reform agenda that includes important commitments to end impunity, promote the rule of law, and encourage reconciliation. Yet political, social and psychological wounds run deep throughout the country, threatening the fragile progress made so far.

The UN has a mixed history in Sri Lanka. On Ban’s last visit, the country was ruled by president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, riding high on the wave of triumphalism and Sinhala nationalism that followed the military’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers. A panel of experts Ban appointed in 2010 found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides. Although it was denounced by the government and its nationalist supporters, the panel’s report contributed to the series of increasingly strong resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability and reconciliation.

The defeat of Rajapaksa and election of Sirisena as president in January 2015 opened unexpected space in Sri Lanka for the Human Rights Council’s resolutions to be acted on. It also marked a growing acceptance that reconciliation required accountability for war crimes and for corruption and the abuse of power.

Sirisena’s new government co-sponsored a landmark resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in October 2015, which committed his administration to establishing offices on missing persons and reparations, a truth commission, and a special court to hear cases of alleged crimes during the war – including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence. The government also promised to investigate other human rights cases, restore the independence of the judiciary and police, reduce the role of the military and agree on constitutional reforms to address the political marginalisation of Sri Lankan Tamils, which gave birth to the years of war and terror.

UN agencies are actively supporting the Sirisena government’s reform agenda, but government efforts have been under-resourcedand weakened by mixed messages and confused lines of authority. Clear direction from the president and from prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been lacking. While there is much greater space for dissent, some improvement in rights protections, and progress towards a new constitution, there has been no decisive break with the culture of impunity. Meanwhile, key sectors within the government are actively undermining reforms.

Take, for example, the government’s pledge to the Human Rights Council that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with new laws consistent with human rights standards. Despite that undertaking, police continue to make arrests under this repressive legislation, and some 200 Tamils are still detained under its provisions, many held for years without charge.

Security officials have reportedly interfered with police investigations that implicate military intelligence units in murders and abductions during the Rajapaksa years. Defence budgets have grown and the military remains a powerful presence in Tamil majority regions, running hotels and other businesses and occupying large amounts of private land. Tamils are increasingly angry at the government’s failure to live up to its promises on all these issues.

Ban should urge that the military cooperate with the police and judiciary. He should also offer UN assistance for the Sri Lankan military’s transition to peacetime duties in two ways: by helping to assess its landholdings and assisting families returning to previously occupied land, and by assisting with job training for retiring soldiers and psycho-social support to veterans and families.

While parliament’s approval earlier this month of a bill to establish the Office on Missing Persons is a welcome first step, Ban must press the president and prime minister to implement all of its promises to the Human Rights Council. A key element of these commitments is a special court for war-related crimes, with the “participation… of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.” With nationalists arguing this is an infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the president and prime minister have reversed position and rejected foreign judges.

Although the Sirisena government co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution last year, it now seems to be dragging its feet. It appears increasingly that the government does not intend to pass the legislation needed to establish the special court before the Council meets in March 2017, a move that could help to evade further international scrutiny.

Ban must make clear his support for continued oversight by the UN Human Rights Council until the government has passed the legislation needed to establish a strong court with the legal basis and the expertise – including international participation – to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even if the government succeeds in winning approval for a constitution that reflects Sri Lanka’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, that will not be enough to ensure reconciliation in the absence of accountability.

Ban should encourage Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to make a much stronger public case – especially to Sinhalese communities – in support of their transitional justice and constitutional initiatives. While resistance from Sinhala nationalists and the Rajapaksa-led opposition is real, strong public outreach and the government’s two-thirds parliamentary majority provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address both the causes and consequences of Sri Lanka’s thirty years of war. As part of this, Ban should also urge that the design of the court and the truth commission take into account the recommendations of public consultations now under way across the island.

Finally, Ban should acknowledge the UN’s failure to protect Sri Lankans during the final months of the war and its immediate aftermath, and commit the UN to an active role defending rights through its ongoing work in Sri Lanka. This should include an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and improved vetting of the human rights record of military personnel who serve in UN missions – particularly with respect to allegations of sexual abuse.

Above all, UN member states must back up Ban’s words with the right combination of encouragement and pressure needed to deepen and sustain the potentially historic transformation now under way in Sri Lanka. With the UN’s help, Sri Lanka could yet build a state that respects the rule of law and protects the rights of all its citizens.