Sri Lanka’s Unfinished Humanitarian Business

Prior to Sri Lanka’s January 2015 election, it was impossible to turn on the television, look at a newspaper or walk down the street without being bombarded with images of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his two brothers, Basil and Gothabaya, who between them dominated many of the key Cabinet positions. But the face of Sri Lanka has changed.

Despite their domination of the media and increasingly authoritarian control of Sri Lanka’s public and political life, the Rajapaksas failed to win the electorate’s support, and were also unable to prompt the intervention of the military once it became clear that the vote was going against them. Instead, voters opted for a new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and his opposition coalition.

As suggested in a recent report in the New York Times, the peaceful installation of a new and democratically elected administration led to “a palpable sense of relief” in Sri Lanka. “Among the happiest are diplomats and representatives of Western nations with whom the Rajapaksa administration had become combative,” the article concludes.

But serious questions remain about Sri Lanka’s future. While President Sirisena promises to bring substantive changes to the country's administration, the fact remains that he was a central figure in the Rajapaksa government regime until as late as November 2014. Now that he has been elected, Sirisena is confronted with some unfinished humanitarian and human rights business which will act as a serious test of his government’s commitment to reform.

First, the new administration must address the problem of internal displacement in Sri Lanka. Between 1983 and 2009, the Sri Lankan military, dominated by the country’s Sinhalese and Buddhist majority, fought a bitter war with the Tamil Tigers, an armed separatist group that battled to establish an autonomous state in the north and east of the country for the country’s Tamil minority.

When that insurgency was eventually crushed in a blitzkrieg by the armed forces, thousands of people were killed and a much larger number - perhaps half a million in total - were displaced. Most of them were herded into overcrowded internment camps, where they were held for many months in appalling conditions.

While those in internment camps were eventually released, little is known about their current situation and many questions remain. To what extent have they been able to enjoy freedom of movement, to return to their places of origin, and to reclaim the land and property that they were forced to abandon? Have they been able to re-establish their livelihoods and benefit from national and international support in reconstructing the areas most seriously affected by the country’s longstanding armed conflict? How have the internally displaced coped with the trauma generated by the final months of the conflict?

With the election of the Sirisina government, it is hoped that new efforts will be made to examine and address the situation of Sri Lanka’s internally displaced people, including members of the Muslim and Sinhalese communities who were uprooted by earlier outbreaks of political and communal violence.

With the election of the Sirisina government, it is hoped that new efforts will be made to examine and address the situation of Sri Lanka’s internally displaced people, including members of the Muslim and Sinhalese communities who were uprooted by earlier outbreaks of political and communal violence.

Second, Sri Lanka must deal with the issues of detention and disappearances. Tens of thousands of people went missing during the conflict that came to an end on 2009. Many of those people are assumed to have been killed, while others are still imprisoned.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has acknowledged that the number of political prisoners remains unclear, and Tamil leaders have expressed growing frustration over the delays that have taken place in identifying and releasing the detainees. According to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaweera, “nobody seems to know who they are, even those who ought to know.”

Third, Sri Lanka’s new government must act on both local and international demands for a full enquiry into the conduct of the military campaign that put an end to the Tamil quest for autonomy. Were crimes against humanity committed, and if so, will the perpetrators of those atrocities ever be held accountable for of their actions?

United Nations efforts to establish such an enquiry were strongly rebuffed by the Rajapaksa regime, which engineered a parliamentary vote that committed the country to a policy of non-cooperation with the UN initiative. Another important test of the new administration will be its willingness to reverse this decision or to establish an alternative enquiry, as President Sirisena has suggested it might do.

The new government drew extensive electoral support from Sri Lanka’s Tamil, Muslim and Christian minorities. To its credit, it has dropped the triumphalist language employed by its predecessor, which made great play of its military victory over the Tigers but said little or nothing about the need for justice and reconciliation in post-conflict Sri Lanka. Only by addressing these issues will the government and its international supporters be able to bring about a lasting and inclusive peace.

Photo: Sri Lanka's newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena arrives for his swearing-in ceremony on January 9. REUTERS/Stringer