The South Asia Channel
How Can Sri Lanka Demonstrate its Commitment to Peace?
As Sri Lanka deals with its violent past, incremental moves taken right now could lay the groundwork for the genuine peace.
Recently, senior figures in the Obama administration have championed another “democratic success story”; this time we’re talking about Sri Lanka. This small, strategically important island nation is recovering from a brutal civil war that according to U.N. estimates, left up to 100,000 dead. The defeat of two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January, and the parliamentary election in August, curbed the country’s slide towards heightened authoritarianism. Still, Sri Lanka’s path to lasting reform, reconciliation, and genuine accountability is only beginning. Moreover Colombo can take certain measures to ensure that this journey starts off with the momentum it needs.
As the international community tries to help Sri Lanka deal with its violent past, the country’s parliament recently debated the findings of a controversial U.N. report. The report focused on alleged wartime abuses committed by both government forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers — the principal actors in a war that spanned nearly three decades. The report itself was recently presented at the 30th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, where another U.S.-led resolution, dealing broadly with justice, human rights, and reconciliation was passed.
A little bit of history
The Tamil Tigers were fighting for a separate Tamil state in the country’s northern and eastern provinces, which historically have been home to significant Tamil populations. In Sri Lanka, ethnic Sinhalese are the overwhelming ethnic majority and comprise about three-quarters of a population that exceeds 20 million. The rise of Tamil militancy in the 1970s was the result of consistent discrimination against Tamils by the Sinhala-dominated state in areas including education, employment, land resources, and language issues. Although various Tamil militant groups emerged initially, it was the Tamil Tigers that waged war against the Sri Lankan government from 1983 to 2009.
The end of the war resulted in massive civilian casualties, most of whom were Tamil. Since the conclusion of the war, accusations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including war crimes, have continued to plague the Sri Lankan military. The Tamil Tigers have also been implicated in alleged wartime abuses, but virtually all of their senior leadership was killed during the war.
Ostensibly, it appears that the country will now turn towards a broad transitional justice process that will require extensive community consultation across a diverse and divided nation. Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, stated that details about the country’s accountability mechanism (implemented to deal with the accusations of wartime abuses) could be expected after January 2016. The government is also sending the message that it needs space to iron out the details regarding the precise nature of international involvement. However, Colombo could take immediate action in a few key areas to prove that it’s serious about human rights, reconciliation, and finally healing the wounds of war.
How to get the ball rolling
Let’s start with the nation’s continued militarization. Even though the war ended more than six years ago, Sri Lanka remains heavily militarized. Nowhere is this truer than in the Tamil-dominated north. Precise statistics regarding troop levels are difficult to come by, though some estimates suggest that over 100,000 troops remain in the north. The ubiquity of military personnel in the north, virtually all of whom are Sinhalese, makes Tamil civilians feel uneasy and insecure. And, aside from disrupting peoples’ daily lives, the military continues to intervene in a range of commercial activities; this directly contributes to the stubbornly high level of unemployment in this area. To make matters worse, the government has shown no interest in discussing the possibility of a military drawdown. That needs to change. If the government is really serious about reconciliation, it needs to demonstrate by helping Tamils live free from pervasive military interference.
A credible road map for demilitarization could begin with an acknowledgement of the problem and with transparency. Colombo must come clean about precisely how many troops it has and where they are located.
Related to militarization, land troubles and the military’s continued occupation of civilian land remains a divisive issue. In the north, at least tens of thousands of people have yet to return home. Widespread land expropriation has been justified on specious national security grounds or highly questionable legal reasoning. While it’s difficult to be precise, the military continues to occupy at least 5,000 acres of civilian land in the north (and perhaps much more). With the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, there is no logical way to defend the previous rationale. Small amounts of land have been returned this year, although the progress thus far remains woefully inadequate.
Additionally, the government continues to hold at least several hundred Tamil political prisoners. The pervasive arbitrary arrest and detention of Tamils occurred frequently during the war. What’s more, the torture of prisoners has been a longstanding problem. Through the country’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, state security forces wield wide-ranging powers to search, arrest and detain civilians. The act allows civilians to be detained for up to 18 months without charges though many have been held for far longer. The government’s continued detention of Tamil political prisoners foments distrust and further alienates the Tamil community. In light of recent hunger strikes in jails across the country, President Maithripala Sirisena said he plans on handling this matter by Nov. 7, although it’s unclear what will happen.
Demilitarization, returning more civilian land to its rightful owners and releasing (or at least bringing to trial) political prisoners are fundamental war-related issues and of utmost importance to the Tamil community. Crucially, making meaningful progress regarding these matters requires neither extensive community consultations nor protracted deliberations.
The result of two historic elections this year have presented the nation with a big opportunity. All aspects of the country’s transitional justice process — from accountability to reparations — deserve careful reflection and a vigorous debate among the nation’s various ethnic and religious communities. Nevertheless, incremental moves taken now could lay the groundwork for the genuine peace that has eluded the country for far too long. So, while people are discussing the nuances of how the country with deal with its past, let’s not forget that important actions could be taken right away. In post-war Sri Lanka, the time for principled, strong leadership from Colombo is long overdue.