Sri Lanka’s Tamil Political Prisoners

An Abdication of Presidential Leadership

Taylor Dibbert Headshotby Taylor Dibbert, ‘The Huffington Post,’ Los Angeles, December 13, 2015

Just days ago, a Tamil political prisoner being held in Jaffna Prison commenced a hunger strike. Similar hunger strikes have taken place this year, although this behavior doesn’t appear to have changed the government’s calculus in a significant way.

This issue has been a source of ongoing debate and tension. The Sri Lankan government has shown, with great reluctance, that it’s willing to grant bail to some prisoners. On November 11 The Wall Street Journal, reported that “the country’s attorney general gave approvals to allow bail for 63 prisoners.”

However, it’s important to keep in mind that these prisoners have been asking to be released and given some semblance of genuine freedom. They’ve not been requesting that they be released on bail, which ensures that they’ll have to appear in court at a later time. (Who knows what might happen then?)

Relatedly, the government could also produce a list of all those who are currently being held. The number of Tamil political prisoners is, at the very least, thought to exceed 200 people, though that number may be much higher. The Wall Street Journal piece from November notes that human rights activists “have in the past given a figure of more than 650 Tamil” political prisoners. An experienced Colombo-based human rights lawyer has told me that the majority of Tamil political prisoners could be released without delay. And that, for a much smaller number of people, where the government might have a significant amount of evidence, a trial may be appropriate.

Current President Maithripala Sirisena was not elected on a reconciliation platform. Yet his government has now made a range of pledges surrounding transitional justice, and it would be helpful if he could take some small steps in that direction. Frankly, it’s still not clear how serious the coalition government is about fulfilling the panoply of commitments that have been made.

If Colombo’s sincere about implementing more significant reforms, it needs to stop prevaricating and either release, or bring to trial, all Tamil political prisoners. Sirisena had given assurances that he would resolve this problem by early November, though that promise has clearly been broken. What we’re currently witnessing is an abdication of presidential leadership. From a gloomier perspective, even if the Sinhala-dominated government is relatively uninterested in reaching out to Tamils, it could still do the bare minimum (as a matter of strategy) and release or bring to trial all Tamil political prisoners. Doing so would at least keep people somewhat hopeful, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, that further war-related reforms might be forthcoming. Colombo’s continued intransigence on some of the small issues makes it’s hard to be optimistic about the broader reform agenda.

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