End of Violence
There are many question marks in post-civil war Sri Lanka.
In the past, many EU member states have struggled with arduous human rights challenges and have expanded the scope of human rights with respect to internationally accepted standards. In Sri Lanka, there have been significant improvements since the end of the conflict based on resettlement and physical reconstruction.
Historically speaking, during Sinhala nationalism anti- Tamil riots left several hundreds of people killed and thousands of Tamils displaced. Amidst ethnic tensions, further antagonizing the people in Tamil majority areas, resulted in the formation of the LTTE. The then government signed accords to create new councils for addressing Tamil grievances in the north and east and reached an agreement with India on deployment of Indian peacekeeping forces. The left- wing and nationalist Sinhalese fought tooth and nail to oppose this intervention and campaigned against the Indo- Sri Lankan agreement. As a result, Indian troops inflicted a major defeat and left the country, only to further spark violence between Sri Lankan army and separatists. The situation further aggravated when thousands of Muslims were expelled from the northern areas by the LTTE. Ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese and Muslim inhabitants from areas under its control and using violence against those who refused to leave was a general practice by the Tamil Tiger
Amidst war and diplomacy, pledging to end the war failed and the LTTE conducted several suicide bomb blasts which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of common and high profile political figures.
Although, former President Rajapaksa earned a feather in his cap for ending Sri Lanka's 27 year civil war with a crushing victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, his critics saw too many unaddressed issues, linked to governance and economic disparity. His government became unpopular in Sri Lankan civil society and was accused of nepotism, persecution of political rivals and minorities such as Tamils and Muslims. During his tenure, he ignored the prosecution of war criminals despite a UN resolution backed by the U. S. to investigate allegations of war crimes. These were the issues that Maithripala Sirisena campaigned around, coupled with good governance and anti- corruption. He strategized for constitutional reforms, including abolishing the country's executive presidential system and reintroducing a parliamentary system.
The former President, in his decade-long regime, had removed the two- term limit on the presidency and had accumulated more powers over and above the judiciary that allowed him to contest for a third term. This creation of monopoly to gain political power resulted in increased political instability, for which electoral reform was mandatory. When Srisena was sworn in as President, his government ensured that the rule of law was upheld. In line with proposing amendments to existing laws, the 19th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution seeks restoration of powers to the judiciary and independent commissions; and to put a two- term cap on the Presidency. This may largely be consistent with the existing constitution and is not a clause that is creating a violation in allowing the current Prime Minister to strip at least some of the powers of the Executive President. Thus, the very violation of some of the basic features of the Constitution is subject to a referendum. On the other hand, the minority Tamil and Muslim parties favour the current proportional representation (PR) system which allows them to elect members to the parliament and best serve the interests of the minority parties.
Sri Lanka's Tamil minority impatiently awaits justice as the post-civil war reconciliation process drags on, with little or no unity among ethnic communities. The government’s promises to release detainees and give land back to families who were forced to flee have not been carried out. Likewise, the need for reparations for victims of conflict-related sexual violence in Sri Lanka is long overdue. Prevention efforts will not succeed unless they are designed in consultation with the people they are meant to assist.
Today, a half decade after the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka is at a crucial stage in its efforts towards a political settlement. The risks of a failed peace are appearing because, since 2009, when the war with the Tamil Tiger rebels ended in an enormous spell of violence, the government led by the former President made only halfhearted of efforts for reconciliation with Tamil citizens. Whilst protecting the country's main religion, Buddhism, safeguarding the rights and freedom of Muslims, Hindus, and Catholics in practicing their religion and creating consensus among them is foremost in reconstructing the country. That said, reconstruction of the war-ravaged Tamil districts, as well as other parts of Sri Lanka damaged by years of terrorism, has barely begun.
President Srisena stunned the world by creating a winning coalition of Sri Lankans of all faiths and ethnicities, who want to rebuild democracy, by not following the path of authoritarian rule. Prior to this, it was a deliberate strategy by the former President to veil Sri Lanka on a semi-war footing and alienate Tamil citizens as the most effective way to maintain his iron-fisted rule. His authoritarian brand of governance worked for a while but it could not hide the reality of the country’s social divisions and continuing impoverishment.
Evidently, in the months since Sirisena’s triumph, Sri Lankan democracy has been revived and efforts for building a durable domestic peace have begun. Keeping up with the current pace, the Parliamentary election will take place one year ahead of schedule, in order to replace Rajapaksa’s echo chamber with a fully functioning assembly - one that holds the government to account!
The government consensus is to avoid a relapse to conflict and to ensure that Sri Lanka’s leaders are held accountable through representative institutions. Too much of the country’s wealth has been damaged by war, or been drawn off through corruption. Without assistance from the outside world, it is inevitable to undertake the great task of rebuilding the country and resetting its strategic position in the world.
Sri Lanka’s strategic dependence on India for its intervention in solving ethnic issues will not protect the country from Tamil separatism and is not favourable for both the countries. Because the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka perceives India’s interest in protecting Tamil Nadu which is of one of its constituent states and not mere mediating ethnic issues in Lanka, there will be a backlash whenever India takes an active interest in the ethnic issue. It behooves the international community, therefore, to ensure that the pledges of Sri Lanka’s new government are upheld in letter and spirit.
The writer is an HR professional and a freelance contributor. She writes on social and cultural issues.