There was a time, not so long ago, when Sri Lanka was known for the quality of its democracy. In 1975, when I was a Foreign Service officer at the U.S. Embassy there, the country was in economic straits but proud of its international reputation for an independent political culture, a feisty press, and a remarkably high standard of education and social services.
There were tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, but there was also a history of cooperation and respect amid Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious diversity. Hindu shrines thrived within the country’s most sacred Buddhist temples. Christians and Muslims played a prominent political role. And at least among the urban elite, Tamils and Sinhalese studied together, played together, and often married each other.
Today, Sri Lanka is another country. The bloody war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government tore the country apart after 1983. The United States and many other friends of Sri Lanka supported the government in its fight. In 2009, the military succeeded in crushing the Tigers. But the government, after winning the war, has not been able to manage the peace or rebuild Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions.
Instead, the country looks to be drifting toward authoritarianism. Journalists are terrified and intimidated by arrests and mysterious assaults on those critical of the government. The annual press freedom index lists Sri Lanka near the bottom, just above China and North Korea.
The once-independent judiciary has learned not to challenge the government’s edicts. The war-heavy defense establishment carries out many internal security functions, and “white vans” have become synonymous with the disappearance of dissidents who speak out against the government. Extremist Buddhist clergy have attacked churches and mosques, with little response from police and with minimal condemnation by political leaders.
But one of the saddest legacies of the long war is the polarization of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities.
President Mahinda Rajapakse and his government had the opportunity to be magnanimous in victory, and to offer the minority Tamil community clear signals that the government would respond to their legitimate grievances, and would offer a modicum of regional autonomy for the traditional Tamil heartland of the north and east. It has failed to do that.
The government also needed to acknowledge and deal with the scar left by the bloody end of the war, in which tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians were killed by indiscriminate military shelling and by LTTE hostage-taking.
The government still owes its people – and especially the relatives of those who died – an honest accounting of that time and a genuine effort to bring to justice wrongdoers. Sweeping these tragedies under the carpet will not help the nation heal nor bridge the divide between Tamils and Sinhalese. There must be truth before there can be meaningful reconciliation.
With the government so far unresponsive, there is increasing pressure for the United Nations to take action. The U.N.’s senior human rights official, Navi Pillay, said in August that if Sri Lanka didn’t make meaningful progress on reconciliation, particularly on issues of accountability during the final stages of the war, “the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry mechanisms.”
The issue is coming to a head as the U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva this month. The United States and other members of the council, including neighbor India, last year supported a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to undertake its own independent and credible investigation into alleged war crimes.
The government of Sri Lanka has levied accusations of bad faith and hypocrisy at the countries calling for action by the U.N. Human Rights Council. In fact, the council is acting only because Sri Lanka has failed to do so.
The world community supported Sri Lanka during its battle with the LTTE, and respected the country’s traditional commitment to democratic governance and to religious and ethnic tolerance.If the government had demonstrated that it was listening to the voices within the country calling for justice and reconciliation, and for an accurate accounting of the actions of the military, there would be no call for action in Geneva.
It is Sri Lanka that has changed, not the United Nations or the nations calling for action at the Human Rights Council.
After five years of stalling by the government, it is time for an international investigation to do what Colombo has been unwilling to do.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Donald Camp is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Readers may send him email at