In the run-up to his recent address at the UN General Assembly, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena struck a defiant note, blatantly rejecting commitments made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015. Sirisena promised to push for the acquittal of Sri Lanka from charges of war crimes committed against Tamils in the last phase of the war and vowed to protect the “hard-earned dignity” of Sri Lankan soldiers – widely thought to have engaged in horrific acts of systematic violence with the approval of the high command.
His initial bravado gave way to a more muted plea at the UN General Assembly last week. “As an independent country we do not want any foreign power to exert influence on us. We want to appeal to the international community to give us the room to resolve the problems that we are facing.” While still reiterating his “great respect for the efforts made by the tri-forces of Sri Lanka to bring peace to the country,” his central message was clear: Foreign governments should stop interfering in how Sri Lanka moves on from decades of war and the solution will be found domestically.
We know from Sri Lanka’s past and recent history of failed promises that this will not work. For decades, Sri Lanka has established commissions and inquiries into severe violations of human rights, some of which even found that crimes had occurred, however justice was not served. In a deeply divided society, the state’s apathy toward crimes against Tamils and the reluctance to prosecute “their own” – i.e. Sinhala security forces – has made impunity the norm. The current failure to hold security forces accountable is not a recent phenomenon that can be isolated from Sri Lanka’s long history of impunity.
Sirisena claims the people of Sri Lanka need to be allowed to find their own solutions, but when he talks about “Sri Lankans,” he is speaking to, and for, the majority Sinhala population – one easily swayed by populist, nationalist rhetoric. Sinhala Buddhists make up the majority of the population of Sri Lanka. Similar to Myanmar, Sri Lanka is plagued by a particularly toxic interpretation of Theravada Buddhism; one that permeates the state and elevates the Sinhala community above other ethnic groups and minorities.
Post-independence, this virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism became entrenched in the formation of the state, embodied through racially discriminatory policies and violence. Sri Lanka’s constitution states that it is the role of the state to “protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.” The Tamil people resisted second-class status and pushed for more rights and autonomy for many years.
Increasingly violent reprisals by the state to peaceful resistance, including repeated pogroms, led to an armed uprising by the Tamil population, seeking an independent homeland in the northeast of the island, home to Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims. The guerrilla war escalated into a full-blown brutal war. The Sri Lankan military routinely killed civilians with indiscriminate air strikes, through massacres and abductions, while the LTTE deployed suicide bombers with devastating effect.
The mass atrocities Sri Lanka is accused of committing occurred particularly during the last phase of the war, which ended on May 18, 2009. The UN says there could have been over 70,000 deaths, while some activists say the figure is closer to 140,000 – one of the most serious human rights violations the world had seen in the new millennium up to that point. While both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military are accused of committing war crimes, the vast majority of deaths through indiscriminate shelling and extrajudicial killings are attributed to the Sri Lankan security forces. In the years following the war, Sri Lanka was isolated on the international stage, with both the United States and the United Kingdom pushing for action through the UN Human Rights Council.
Sirisena was hailed as a reformer in the wake of his surprise election victory over the repressive President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, whose presidency was marked by mass atrocities, abductions and repression of political expression – all felt most acutely by the island’s Tamil population. Many in the international community saw Sirisena as a leader genuine in his wish to deal with accountability issues for mass atrocities committed by state forces.
Indeed, the new president immediately promised to do away with abductions and censorship — as sustained international pressure, led by the United States, for justice and accountability had reached a high point. Sri Lanka’s reluctant support of a UN resolution, again led by the United States, which called for the establishment of special courts with international participation to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity gave credence to the view that there was hope. Sri Lanka even followed through on some of its commitments, particularly with the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, however doubts remain about how much the office can achieve, considering that it is the state itself that is accused of most of the enforced disappearances.
Although many Tamils remained sceptical of the state as a whole, some had elevated expectations of Sirisena – especially due to the positivity exuded by the largest Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance who backed Sirisena during the elections, ensuring the Tamil vote. Tamils in general were more in favor of an international justice mechanism that could address the serious allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity, arguing that Sri Lanka’s notoriously racist state institutions were neither willing, nor able, to prosecute atrocity crimes of such enormity.
While Sirisena’s election brought about an opening of space not previously available, the root of the ongoing conflict – the toxic nature of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism – remains unaddressed. Soon after the election in 2015, the Obama administration commenced the rebuilding of the restricted relationship between the countries. As months passed, international pressure for justice and accountability lessened, with then-Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power even praising Sri Lanka as a “global champion of human rights.” While direct U.S. military assistance remains restricted, joint trainings and photo-ops with the war-crimes accused military increased – this year has again seen a sharp increase in mil-to-mil engagements with Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was being rehabilitated on the international stage, much to the chagrin of the Tamil population, who warned that prematurely rewarding the government would undermine progress rather than encourage it. International pressure has proven to be effective in forcing Sri Lanka to the table and gaining concessions with regards to accountability and justice. However nearly 10 years after the end of the conflict, reconciliation and a sustainable peace are far off – contrary to what President Sirisena claimed in his speech at the UNGA.
Today Tamils are disillusioned with the state of affairs. Visiting the northeast of the island this summer, I repeatedly heard the same refrain of hopelessness and despair. “This government will also not do anything for us. It’s their [Sinhala people’s] government, it’s their army. How will the perpetrators prosecute themselves?” one Tamil activist in the east, whose husband was disappeared told me. Tamils remain painfully aware that the democratic gains seen in the last four years could easily be reversed at the next election. Dozens of those who put their heads above the parapets as journalists or activists during the ceasefire, a previous period of relative freedom, were targeted and killed once the ceasefire broke down.
Sri Lanka has repeatedly gone back on its promises to investigate and prosecute atrocity crimes. But Sri Lanka’s crimes are not confined to the past. This year saw repeated violence against members of the Muslim community by Sinhala Buddhist mobs. Abductions and torture in custody remain rampant and harassment and intimidation of Tamil activists has continued. The Tamil-dominated areas of the island are one of the most militarised regions in the world, with at least one district having as many as one soldier for every two civilians.
But the Sinhala population remains resistant to the accountability necessary to address these concerns, as it is seen as a threat to its “heroic troops who defeated terrorism.” Anything that is perceived as a threat to the Sinhala Buddhist nature of the state will be attacked and vilified – whether it’s Tamil demands for autonomy, Muslim dominance in certain economic activities, or indeed, international pressure for accountability. Successive Sri Lankan governments have proven to be unwilling to acknowledge, let alone address, the root cause of the conflict. And this is where the Sirisena government also failed. If this regime was genuinely all about accountability, reconciliation and a sustainable peace, it should have embarked on an immediate programme of education and awareness amongst the Sinhala population on these difficult issues. Without addressing Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, the conflict will continue to fester.
Tamils meanwhile are showing no sign of giving up their resistance to the state. Remembrance of massacres and commemorations of the LTTE have increased in recent years. Tamil national identity is strengthening and identification with Sri Lanka in turn remains minimal. Only a day after Sirisena’s address at the UN, Tamils across the northeast commemorated Lt Col Thileeban, a senior commander of the LTTE who died after a hunger-strike in 1987. His demands at the time are strikingly similar to Tamil demands today. Significantly, after years of avoiding open commemoration of the LTTE, senior TNA leaders again regularly attend such events.
The international community cannot rely on Sri Lanka to bring reconciliation, stability and peace to the island. It was international pressure through avenues such as the HRC but also unilaterally that forced Sri Lanka to the table. However, Sri Lanka was not genuine in its commitments. Just between March 2017 and May 2018, Sri Lanka repudiated its commitments to the HRC and to the people of Sri Lanka at least 30 times. In 2015, then-Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, also held up as a progressive, genuine about reforms, asked skeptics not to judge the government by past broken promises and u-turns, but by their current actions.
Now, in 2018, Samaraweera has joined the long line of Sinhala leaders to break promises, proclaiming proudly that his government was able to halt the UN investigation into human rights violations. While Sri Lanka must continue to be scrutinized in fora such as the UN, other alternatives paths for justice must be found, be it through universal jurisdiction or a referral to the ICC. The Sri Lankan state rejects international pressure precisely because it is a threat to the intrinsic Sinhala nationalist nature of the state. The current government’s failure to tackle this as the cause of conflict, is why the international community must increase its involvement – in order to achieve accountability and a just political solution which will ensure an equitable and sustainable peace for all communities on the island.
Mario Arulthas is the Advocacy Director for the Washington DC-based People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), and a Human Rights Fellow at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership