Cautious Hope in Post-War Sri Lanka

By Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, 3L 

Six years after the end of a brutal conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (a separatist rebel group), a surprising regime change has raised cautious optimism that the country is finally poised to move towards meaningful accountability and reconciliation, and address the underlying issues that caused the ethnic conflict.

The end of the war in 2009 saw tens of thousands of civilian deaths and numerous credible allegations of war crimes. Instead of seeking reconciliation, the former regime (led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa) exacerbated issues facing the Tamils alongside growing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The result for the past six years has been continued wide-scale human rights abuses and oppression of the Tamils, heavy militarization of the Tamil-populated North East, large-scale acquisitions of Tamil-owned land, growing animosity and abuses against Muslims, and a failure to account for thousands of persons who disappeared during the war.

The ‘accountability’ and ‘reconciliation’ mechanisms the government did conduct, such as the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” and the “Commission to Investigate Missing Persons”, were internationally and domestically criticized as superficial and corrupt. 

It was in this context, after years of international pressure, that the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution in March 2014, mandating an international investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) into war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses committed by both sides of the conflict.

Unsurprisingly, the Rajapaksa regime categorically rejected and refused to cooperate with the OHCHR’s Investigation on Sri Lanka (“OISL”), painting the resolution as an intrusion on sovereignty and “political witch hunting.” The Sinhala Buddhist majority that formed Rajapaksa’s voter base largely supported this narrative of ‘Sri Lanka vs the West’ and, up until the January election, it appeared that Rajapaksa would be domestically invincible.

However, a coalition of opposition parties jointly appointed a former high-ranking member of Rajapaka’s cabinet, Maithripala Sirisena, to run against him. Sirisena campaigned on a proposed 100-day plan of ac- tion that would see him abolish the executive presidency in favour of a parliamentary system and restore rule of law and democracy to the country. A high voter turnout from the Tamil population in the North East and the Muslim population, both eager to oust Rajapaksa, along with a segment of the Sinahalese majority frustrated with growing corruption in government, contributed to Sirisena’s stunning win.

While Sirisena appears committed to taking steps towards restoring Sri Lanka’s democracy and rule of law, the question still remains of whether regime change will result in accountability, justice and any real political solution for the Tamils. The international community appears to think so, as evidenced by the UN Human Rights Council’s decision on February 13, 2015 to delay the release of the report from the OISL by six months to September 2015. The delay was based on the recommendation of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who cited the “changing context in Sri Lanka, and the signals of broad cooperation...received from the Government.”

However, during the election, Sirisena’s campaign did not differ from Rajapaksa’s in its ignorance of a political solution for the Tamils and its outright refusal to cooperate with the OISL. Sirisena’s campaign pandered to the same strain of Sinhala Bud- dhist nationalism that formed Rajapaksa’s voter base, with both candidates competing to seem more anti-Tamil and Sinhala nationalist than the other.

In spite of this, there is one critical difference. Unlike Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s government appears keen on repairing relations with Western powers and India. This requires improving the government’s failed human rights record. Already, in the weeks following the election, the new leadership has inched away from its ultra-nationalist campaign platform and indicated a willingness to open up space for discussions internationally around accountability, justice and a political solution. However, it remains to be seen whether the government is willing to allow that conversation to actually change its positions.

Notably, at the time of writing this article, the government continues to reject any form of international accountability mechanism and remains in favour of a domestic one (with technical support from international actors), while simultaneously moving to protect the leaders most likely to be found guilty of war crimes.

For example, the government has re-appointed Sarath Fonseka to his position as Chief of Defence, despite the fact that he led the army through the last phase of the war and has publicly stated that he “planned the entire operation” and was “communicating with all levels of army persons.” Sirisena has also gone on record saying he would protect the Rajapaksas from any international prosecutions for war crimes, and the new State Minister of Defence has confirmed there are no plans to demilitarize the North East. It is clear that any space that has opened up under the new regime is extremely small and fragile, given Sirisena’s plan to hold parliamentary elections in April 2015 once he has abolished the executive presidency.

Sri Lanka is undoubtedly at a critical juncture after a year of strong international pressure and a surprising regime change. But as recent world history has demonstrated, even the most imposing regimes can crumble in days. What Sri Lanka really needs in order to create a long-term and sustainable political solution is the dismantling of its systems and structures of oppression. The true test of whether anything will come of this opportunity depends greatly on continued international pressure to move the new regime beyond simply addressing the concerns of its majority Sinhalese population, towards actually engaging in meaningful accountability, justice and reconciliation for its long-oppressed and war-affected Tamil population.