Prospects for reconciliation in Sri Lanka
The defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan army last year and an overwhelming election victory by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) could provide an opportunity for reconciliation.
Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has experienced communal tension and later, civil war, between the majority Sinhalese (74 percent) and country’s minority Tamil (8 percent) community.
Tamils have long complained of marginalisation by successive Sinhalese- dominated governments, particularly with regard to poor access to education and limited opportunities in the public service.
Such complaints – coupled with other underlying ethnic tensions — would later spark a decades-long civil war that only ended on 18 May 2009.
Mirak Raheem from the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), an independent think-tank in Colombo, believes that with rebuilding under way, now is the time to find a solution to years of ethnic tension.
“We can really focus on the plural nature of the Sri Lankan State and build on that. I think in this present moment we have the space to decide and define what Sri Lanka should really be,” he said.
For its part, the government has opened dialogue with the opposition Tamil National Alliance.
Moreover, President Mahinda Rajapaksa says he wants to “be the leader who brings permanent peace and development to this country and reconciliation with Tamil communities”.
However, Alan Keenan from the International Crisis Group (ICG) says despite the rhetoric, most decisions are still made in Colombo and by Sinhalese politicians and the military.
“While the president and officials promised to reach out to them [the Tamils] in a meaningful way, they really haven’t. There has been no real consultation on the development or reconstruction of the north,” Keenan said.
The government has defended its development and resettlement programme, with Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of parliament, saying: “Education and health facilities are back to what they were before the war; in fact, better in some areas.”
The government has also established language and employment policies designed to assist in integration and overcome the alienation that led to much of the civil unrest, Wijesinha told IRIN.
Moreover, it has established a Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (CLLR), with a mandate to examine what led to the breakdown of a ceasefire in 2002 and all activities that followed until the end of hostilities in 2009.
War crimes allegations
Despite that, a major sticking point, according to international observers, is the government’s unwillingness to investigate alleged war crimes and human rights abuses committed by both sides during the final stages of the war.
In a report in May, the ICG said that it had collected evidence of war crimes committed by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military, which sparked calls for an international inquiry.
In June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a panel of experts to look into the progress the government had made since May 2009 in addressing alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the conflict and to recommend ways the government and the United Nations could better support this process - a move the government has rejected.
Ban “remains convinced that accountability is an essential foundation for durable peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Through the panel the Secretary-General expects to enable the UN to make a constructive contribution in this regard,” a statement by his office said on 22 June.
In early July, Sri Lanka protesters burnt effigies of Ban outside the UN compound in Colombo and a cabinet member went on a hunger strike in response to the UN Secretary General's comments.
According to Wijesinha, the international community should now focus on the future rather than the past.
“I think the biggest challenge is the idea that reconciliation is all about the past, about war crimes and possible punishment for these,” he said.
“Sadly, some claim that reconciliation is impossible without reckonings, which I think takes attention away from all the positive actions that are happening.”
Peace researcher Norbert Ropers, who has worked in the island nation for years, believes reconciliation is a long-term process, which could take more than a generation to be achieved.
“Each society has to find its own way to integrate the past into its vision for a just and peaceful future while respecting international humanitarian and human rights standards and the need for accountability,” he said.
The CPA’s Raheem argues there is still a lack of trust among all parties but a convincing electoral win by the government last year could empower the president to take the “courageous steps” required to build harmony.
“Civil society organisations and NGOs - they’re still nervous taking on that kind of issue or holding public discussions. The key actor who can really open up that space is the government but [it] too [is] nervous,” said Raheem.
“There’s a tendency to characterise reconciliation as being between the state and Tamil community or the Sinhalese or the Muslims, but it is also something that must be done within each of these communities too,” he added.
“The government has reached out to different Tamil political parties for their ideas on how to improve the process of rebuilding and the reconciliation process. There also is a need for explicit activities to build confidence and trust, including emotional and spiritual healing,” Neil Buhne, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.
“I am hopeful these needs can be met. If they are, the peace and prospects for prosperity that Sri Lanka now has gained at high cost [are] more likely to last,” he said.
IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but its services are editorially independent.