Sri Lanka At A Crossroads – A Tamil Perspective

by Suren Surendiran, ‘Colombo Telegraph,’ December 18, 2016

Suren Surendiran

Suren Surendiran

January 2015 saw one of the worst tyrannies in the history of Sri Lanka come to an abrupt end. The unexpected was realised through the ballot and not through bullet.

President Maithripala Sirisena swept to power with 51.2% of the vote compared with his rival who mustered 47.6%. Although there were pockets in the South where Maithripala managed to edge over Rajapaksa, the minorities, particularly the Tamils, in their areas of domination overwhelmingly rejected Rajapaksa, in some districts voting for Maithripala by 4 to 5 times more, which ultimately gave him, the win.

August 2015 yet again saw extremism within the Sinhalese and Tamils being out rightly rejected to form a coalition government and an opposition, both with majority of moderate voices.

Military governors were removed and civilian governors were appointed to the predominantly Tamil Northern and Eastern Provinces. At the Independence Day celebrations on 4 February 2015, a declaration for peace was readout in all three languages and the President and Prime Minister presided over paying respect to all who perished during the war. The 18thamendment to the constitution, which by and large politicised all independent democratic institutions, was reversed by passing the 19th amendment.

Democratic space was created for freedom of expression without fear of reprisals. Unlike during the Rajapaksa reign, not a single journalist got killed or abducted during 2015. No serious threat to religious freedom was realised unlike during the preceding years. Some private lands were released with President publicly promising to release all the private lands occupied by the military within six months. There was an initial release of small number of political prisoners with a public commitment to the Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that the remainder will be released soon after.

Government of Sri Lanka co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution A/HRC/30/L.29 in Oct 2015, which acknowledged that terrible crimes were committed by both parties during the armed conflict and wanted an independent credible accountability mechanism with international participation be set up by the Government. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mangala Samaraweera in his speech said “Don’t judge us by the broken promises, experiences and U-turns of the past…. My plea to you Ladies and Gentlemen, is trust us and join us to work together and create the momentum required to move forward and take progressive, meaningful and transformative steps to create a new Sri Lanka.”

Foreign Minister further stated that the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) will be repealed and a more appropriate legislation be introduced conforming to international standards.
2015 also saw some of the Tamil diaspora organisations and individuals being de-proscribed by the present government.

Further, the scene was set to pass a resolution to convert parliament into a constitutional assembly.

Therefore, by end of 2015 although things were not progressing and/or progressing fast enough as promised in the 100 point plan of the newly elected President or in the manifesto commitments made by the new government, the general trajectory of democratisation, social justice and economy were treading marginally upward compared to the previous years of Rajapaksa reign. The expectations of the Tamil people too were on the same trajectory.

As we reach the end of 2016, a critical analysis of the past 12 months in Sri Lanka paints a more subdued and relatively disappointing picture, although all’s not lost.

As they say, old habits die hard. Dilly dallying on some of the commitments made by the government and the President has become a more frequent feature during 2016. Most Sri Lankans feel generally let down by this government as several of their manifesto commitments haven’t been implemented.

This government came to power claiming to clean up corruption and mismanagement that prevailed during the previous regime and bring to justice those who abused their authority in various ways. Unfortunately, neither have they been able to prosecute anyone successfully nor have they been able to run a government without various major corruption charges being levelled against them.

In a recent incident, a senior cabinet minister was caught on camera allegedly interfering and perverting the course of justice through the most senior policeman in the land.

Although thousands of combatants and civilians surrendered or captured at the end of the war, only 296 were publicly accepted as prisoners detained either under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) or held without charges being brought at a court of law, by this new government. The current information is that, of these 296 detainees, 96 are still under detention. 23 of these 96 were granted bail, recently. However, there is no public acknowledgement as to how many of the 23 actually accepted the bail.

Releasing the entire 296 immediately or soon after coming to power by the executive President, would have been seen by the Tamil people as a great reconciliatory step. This would have helped in a small way to bridge the trust deficiency that remains within the Sinhala and Tamil communities.

The inability to accomplish even that in the past several months after promising at the end of 2015, possibly demonstrates the lack of will and courage. This in turn creates genuine doubts in the minds of even the moderates who helped this President and the government to succeed in respective elections last year, the possibility of any deeper reforms.

President Maithripala Sirisena publicly states that there won’t be any international judges in the judicial mechanism to address accountability for the alleged crimes committed during the war. Recently in a speech in Maharagama, the President said that in his speech at the UN General Assembly he has stated this very clearly and the international community has now accepted that there won’t be any international judges. Since 8 November, the President has also suggested that he will write to the President Elect Donald Trump to seek help to relieve Sri Lanka from having to fully comply with the UNHRC resolution, which by the way was co-sponsored by his own government.

The Prime Minister too said in an interview to an Indian media outlet recently, that there won’t be any international judges.

To remind readers, the High Commissioner of the UNHRC said in September 2015, “The levels of mistrust in State authorities and institutions by broad segments of Sri Lankan society should not be underestimated. It is for this reason that the establishment of a hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, is so essential. A purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises.”

Although President made a public pronouncement of zero tolerance of sexual violence and torture, the police and military intelligence are constantly being accused by victims of abuse and torture.

Although primarily contained within their barracks, the levels of military presence in the North and East are not even in any serious discussions as yet. PTA is yet to be repealed. Government funded Buddhistisation of North and East where the majority are Hindus, Muslims and Christians, continues.

There is significant rise in religious and race hatred being preached by some Buddhist monks with impunity.

Although the record over the past several months is reflected in the disappointment and despair that communities feel at present, nevertheless there have been some significant progress too.

Several thousands of acres of land have been handed over to the rightful owners. However, the President’s commitment to release all such lands within the six months, which expired by end of June 2016, is yet to be realised.

As committed in respective manifestos of parties in government and by the President of their will to resolve the long standing Tamil national question, in May, a resolution was passed unanimously to set up a Constitutional Assembly. After several deliberations six sub-committee reports on the elements of the new constitution was presented to the parliament during November. Although as committed 10 December didn’t see the interim report of the new constitution being presented to the parliament, there will be debate at the parliament on 9 and 10 of January 2017. A parliamentary two third majority and a simple majority in a public referendum will follow. The jury is out and outcome will depend on the political will of the Sinhala leaders.

‘Office of the Missing Persons’ was set up by passing legislation but implementation has been delayed. There is much improved cooperation with UN Agencies on human rights mechanisms. There was less triumphalist approach adopted during the end of war anniversary on May 18th. As part of reconciliation efforts, the Tamil Remembrance Day events on 27 November were allowed to be held all-over the Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka for families and friends to mourn their dead. These were unimaginable, during the Rajapaksa reign. A further list of diaspora individuals have been removed from the proscription list.

However, there has been very little visible progress being made on the accountability mechanism. A wide range of institutional reforms including the much needed ‘security sector reform’, strengthening of the witness protection legislation which at present falls far short of what is required, and genuine consultations with victims and their families in every step of the process to get to truth and justice are vitally important measures and are yet to be undertaken by the government. Several of the crimes alleged to have been committed by both sides amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. These are not recognised as crimes in the current judicial system. Legislations have to be passed by the parliament to recognise these as crimes. These haven’t even begun. Very little or no discourse has begun on reparation.

The lack of political will and courage demonstrated by the Sinhala leaders including the President and the Prime Minister to engage in discourse among the Sinhala people of the need to establish the truth of what happened and the importance of accountability for the wrongs that were done against another community of their own citizens, remains a serious impediment, to deliver justice to the victims.

The mixed messages relayed to key stakeholders including the victims, military, other citizens of Sri Lanka and international community by senior state officials including the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister reflect that there is no cohesive and coordinated government policy as yet on this important international commitment.

Until there are concerted efforts taken to make understand and accept by Sinhala civil society, Sinhala media and Buddhist clergy that there were gross violations of local and international human rights and humanitarian laws by the military but not by the entire military, during and after the end of war, there can only be marginal perceived successes, in the government implementation of the transitional justice program.

It is now obvious that Sri Lanka wouldn’t have made any significant progress by March 2017 in implementing the UNHRC resolution that it co-sponsored. Therefore, it is inevitable that Sri Lanka will request an extension to the timeline. It will only be conceivable that the member states will agree to roll-over the resolution.

*Suren Surendiran – Spokesperson and Director of Strategic Initiatives of Global Tamil Forum (GTF)

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