Sri Lanka: Hope for Minorities?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka: Hope for Minorities?


A new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has brought a new wave of hope to Sri Lanka, yet it is still a moment of somewhat tempered optimism for the minorities who constitute almost 30 percent of the population of this post-conflict country. Sirisena, with his election motto of ‘”compassionate governance,” is walking a tightrope of balancing different political parties whilst aiming to fulfill several ambitious objectives, which include addressing war-crimes allegations through an independent domestic mechanism, establishing independent commissions to secure the impartiality of the judiciary, and cracking down on corruption.

However, the key question remains: Does Sirisena have the political will and capability to actually resolve the fundamental problems that drove the country to almost three decades of civil war?

A History of Violence

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The civil war in Sri Lanka has often been read as an inevitable outcome of historically warring “races” or portrayed as a terrorist problem between an extremist secessionist group and the Sri Lankan state. Both these interpretations are simplistic and misleading. For an understanding of the political history of the conflict, it is useful to start with 1956, when Tamil grievances, related to legislative measures regarding language, admission into institutions of higher education, distribution of agricultural lands, and state employment, led to protests and an escalation in violence.

The Tamils initially tried to address its grievances through political means. However, the introduction of “proportional representation” and the reintroduction of Tamil as an official language by the then United National Party (UNP) government failed to pacify the minority, and instead a feeling of disillusionment and lack of trust in the political leadership grew. Instead of accommodating the legitimate grievances of the Tamils, the government responded by implementing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1979. This was followed by anti-Tamil pogroms in July 1983, which fuelled the civil war. Previous governments have also been accused of state sponsored “colonization” schemes that effectively changed the demographic balance in the Eastern Province, an area Tamil nationalists considered to be their traditional homeland, in favor of the majority Sinhalese community.

Despite several attempts at a peaceful resolution, no political settlement was found and, under the helm of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the civil war came to a violent end in 2009. Since then, the island nation has clung to its political setup of a centralized Sinhala-majoritarian state, one that fails to incorporate the interests and aspirations of minority groups. Moreover, there has been no peace dividend for the minority communities, with high levels of unemployment prevalent in the northern province, especially among youth and women. Approximately 300,000 people were displaced in the war’s final phase and many still remain mired in poverty, without proper housing and under constant military surveillance.

With the new president at helm and parliamentary elections approaching, the Tamils have demanded greater autonomy in the north and the east. But Sirisena’s election manifesto is completely silent on this matter. In fact, Sirisena has clearly stated that he is against giving more autonomy to the Tamils. It is also highly unlikely that he will change his hardline stance, given his unstable coalition with anti-Tamil extremist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which has been busy downplaying the role of the Tamil and Muslim communities in the recent elections that helped bring Sirisena to power.

Religious Tensions and Sectarian Violence

Extremist political parties are not the only concern. Religious tensions and sectarian violence have cropped up since the end of the war, with several incidents of violence against the minority communities and destruction of Muslim and Christian places of worship by Buddhist fundamentalists who are allegedly members of Buddhist extremist groups, namely the BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) and Sinhala Ravaya. In the Tamil-dominated north, and in the east, where most of the country’s Muslims live, national monuments have been erected to honor Buddhist kings while mosques have been attacked and ransacked.

In Sri Lanka, Buddhism is given special recognition in the Constitution, which requires Sri Lanka to “protect and foster the Buddha Sasana,” where “sasana” implies “rule” or “administration.” Despite the constitutional support, insecurities have arisen in the Sinhala community and BBS have played into these insecurities by inciting nationalist sentiment. This coupled with the silent support from the former government, have created a culture of impunity where minority groups have been attacked without any judicial action taken against the culprits. On the other hand, BBS leaders have repeatedly claimed that minority groups are threatening the nation’s Buddhist identity. This kind of xenophobic rhetoric mirrors the “prejudice held by majority of Buddhist population,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council NGO.

This onslaught of violence against Muslims and Christians is not new. Throughout the Tamil movement for self-determination, the Muslim community has been concerned about being politically marginalized in a federal political and administrative framework. Historically, they have been supportive of the Sinhala-Buddhist political system and have been targets of violence by the LTTE throughout the 1990s. On many occasions the LTTE forcibly expelled them from the Northern Province and that expulsion still carries bitter memories amongst the Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who are now facing further indignities and attacks.

Peace Without Accountability 

The violent end to the conflict and defeat of LTTE came on the back of one of the most internationalized peace processes, led by Norway as mediator. However, despite the peace talks, human rights violations continued, including use of the civilian population as human shields, bombing of civilian areas, deliberate assassination of surrendering soldiers, torture and summary executions. The 2011 Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka states that as many as 40,000 civilians may have died amid government shelling in the final five months of the conflict in 2009.

Under international pressure to address demands of justice and reconciliation, the Rajapaksa government set up several commissions and inquiries, such as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons (COI). However, most government led commissions have been plagued with allegations of misrepresentation of facts, limited mandate, alleged lack of independence and failure to meet minimum international standards or offer protection to witnesses. Moreover, no concrete action or punitive measure has been taken against leaders or others responsible for human rights violations.

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights violations and has rejected calls for international investigations of alleged war crimes carried out by both parties, a stance that remains unchanged with Sirisena heading the new government. Whilst his predecessor had asked the Tamil minority to “forget the past,” Sirsena has categorically stated in his manifesto that he will not allow any political leader to be prosecuted for alleged war crimes. Instead he promises to appoint a (yet another) domestic mechanism for accountability. This is hardly surprising, given that he and the former president Rajapaksha were part of the government during the end of civil war, and if implicated, could face charges for war crimes.

But international cooperation is necessary for Sirisena if he wants to raise the credibility of the Sri Lankan government in the international stage. He could probably begin with allowing visas for the investigating team of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which intends to present a report in March this year about the abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the civil war. Unfortunately, Human Rights Council has no stringent implementing power, since it reports directly to the General Assembly, rather than the Security Council. It lacks the enforcement powers to ensure compliance with its resolutions and is unable to effectively protect human rights where a state is not willing to cooperate. Moreover, in case of Sri Lanka, both China and Russia have so far been reluctant regarding implementing sanctions against Sri Lanka or to refer its case to the International Criminal Court. 

Right Moves? 

Sri Lanka’s recent presidential polls were definitely a negative vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s repressive regime, but his downfall was more to do with allegations of nepotism, corruption, and the Rajapaksha’s family’s dominance, and less to do with minority issues.

Nevertheless, to date the new man at the helm seems to be making all the right moves. Almost one month into his presidency, as promised Sirisena has called for parliamentary elections in April, two years ahead of schedule. He has appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new prime minister, who in the past has held this position twice and has been more amenable to a peaceful political solution to issues concerning the minorities. A new chief justice has been appointed, Kanagasabapathy Sripavan, who is the first member of the minority Tamil community to hold the post in more than two decades. A new civilian governor has been appointed to the Tamil-majority Northern Province, replacing former army commander Maj. Gen. G. A. Chandrasiri with long-time diplomat H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, whilst Tamil leaders have agreed to join a new council to monitor developments in the north. The new government has also announced the lifting of a ban on foreign nationals visiting the island’s former war zones and the scrapping of an economic embargo on minority Tamil regions. In his latest official visit to India, the new foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, stated that the Sri Lankan government was identifying people whose land had been in military use, so as to reverse their relocation and return them to their original home. Finally, he also reiterated that the government was committed towards implementing the contentious “13th amendment” of the Constitution on devolution of powers to Tamil-majority areas, but would start discussions with all parties only after the upcoming parliamentary elections.

In spite of these positive steps and promises, skepticism still lingers. Militarization of the northern provinces continues, which has been confirmed by the spokesperson for Sri Lanka’s army who stated that no decision has been taken to reduce the number of troops in the military, noting instead that more than 20,000 people had been recruited into the armed forces for “development projects.” Moreover, Sirisena’s “humanitarian” approach to human rights questions only goes to the extent of “engaging” with the UN Human Rights Council without being open to any criminal or civil jurisdiction at the international level.

The following months are going to be critical for Sirisena, who needs a majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections to push ahead with his planned reforms. Whilst balancing the different demands of his allies, he has to simultaneously keep an eye on Rajapaksha, who might attempt to return to the parliament with a majority. This is an opportune moment for Sirisena and his allies to prove that a new political era has begun, by following through with their promises and addressing the fundamental issues plaguing the minority communities, otherwise Sirisena could very well end up being another Rajapaksha.

Neha Sinha is a political researcher and freelance journalist, specializing in conflict, development and migration issues. Email: [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of any other individual or organization.

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