The Transition of Sri Lanka

 Leah Field, Staff Writer 

The South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka is currently in the midst of a difficult transition following the end of a decades-long civil war. The legacy of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which officially came to an end in May 2009, continues to cast a shadow on the country’s future. More than 100,000 civilians were killed over the course of twenty-five years in the violent conflict between the Sri Lankan government and minority Tamil militant groups. The outbreak of war was a culmination of longstanding ethnic tensions in the region. The majority of Sri Lankans, about seventy-five percent, are ethnically Sinhalese. However, Tamils make up a significant minority—between 10 and 15 percent of the population are Tamils. Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans have their own cultures, languages, and traditions. The island is heavily segregated between the two groups, with the majority of Tamils living in areas in the north and east of the island. Religion is another key contention between the two groups, as Sinhalese Sri Lankans are Buddhist while Tamil Sri Lankans are predominantly Hindu. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, colloquially known as the Tamil Tigers, emerged as the most prominent Tamil militant group in the country in the 1970s, and war officially broke out when clashes between the Tamil Tigers and government forces erupted in 1983.

What followed was a bloody and violent civil war with mass human rights violations committed by both sides. The Sri Lankan government regularly committed massacres of Tamil civilians—committing torture and causing disappearances of their enemies. Likewise, the Tamil Tigers tortured, used child soldiers, and committed massacres against Sinhalese civilians. The war came to an end with the adoption of a ceasefire in 2009, but the aftermath consists of heightened ethnic tensions, violence, and discrimination.

In October 2015, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for the pursuit of truth, justice, and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Yet, more than two years after the resolution’s passing, the government of Sri Lanka has taken no substantial action to remedy the nation’s ongoing crisis. On the contrary, many recent government policies have only exacerbated tensions and violence. Thousands of internally displaced Tamil Sri Lankans receive no aid from the government, which has instead implemented a policy of moving Sinhalese citizens into formerly Tamil areas. Tamil regions remain largely militarized, and any protests are met with quick and brutal repression by police. One of the government policies most strongly condemned by the international community and human rights groups is the oppressive Prevention of Terrorism Act. Passed in the 1970s to allow the government to indiscriminately detain and torture Tamil Tiger members or their suspected supporters, the Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in effect today. The act is used today to detain people without due process for years at a time, and under the act, torture and sexual abuse are rampant. Political opponents and peace activists are common targets of the PTA, which is disproportionately used against Tamils. These policies only scratch the surface of the continuous injustices in Sri Lanka.

In 2016, a Consultation Task Force was appointed by then prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe with the purpose of making recommendations on how Sri Lanka should advance justice and reconciliation. In 2017, the CTF released a detailed report that extrapolated upon the policies recommended by the 2015 UN resolution. Like the resolution, the Sri Lankan government has refused to consider any of the CTF’s suggestions. However, in spite of the government’s obstinacy, the recommended mechanisms are crucial if Sri Lanka ever hopes to move past the violence and tension of its civil war.

One of the most important recommendations made by the CTF report is that of a truth commission. A truth commission, one that can formally hold perpetrators accountable and bring closure to mourning families, is an essential step towards justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. In recent decades, truth commissions have been used across the world as a method of moving past conflict and into the future. Most famously, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission implemented a combination of investigations, witness testimonies, and trials to cope with the country’s violent apartheid past. Truth commissions are certainly not perfect, and they cannot solve all of a country’s problems on their own. However, a truth commission is sorely needed in Sri Lanka as a first step in a transition toward democracy and peace.

In the case of Sri Lanka, an effective truth commission is perhaps even more necessary because of the nature of the country’s past conflict and civil war. Unlike in other truth commissions, such as in the South African TRC, a Sri Lankan truth commission will have to investigate and hold accountable human rights abuses perpetrated by both opposing sides of the war. The sensitivity of this endeavor is enormous, and the concept makes Sri Lankans on both sides fearful and angry. However, the alternative to accepting the civil war’s reality is much grimmer. Already the Sri Lankan government has begun to rewrite history in their favor. The government’s official stance is the denial of any human rights abuses perpetrated by their forces during the war, and they additionally continue to ignore hundreds of forced disappearances that affect families to this day. Perhaps the most obvious subversion of history by the Sri Lankan government was in the form of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) carried out by the government in 2010. Nominally, the LLRC was a truth commission intended to investigate and corroborate the human rights violations that took place during the civil war. In reality, the LLRC did no such thing. Both human rights groups and the international community have lambasted the LLRC as inaccurate, hopelessly biased, and destructive towards peace- a political tool used by the Sri Lankan government to exonerate themselves of all crimes while allowing them to claim that they pursued accountability.

False attempts to remedy the past such as the LLRC only inflame tensions in the country and emphasize the need for an accurate and sincere truth commission in Sri Lanka. While this goal is seemingly far away, it is still possible. This past fall, the Sri Lankan government caved to international pressure and established an Office of Missing Persons in order to investigate unresolved cases of forced disappearances. While many accuse this action of being merely another instance of “cosmetic maneuvering” for the sake of international actors, it nevertheless proves a point: with the combination of continued international pressure and the persistent internal outcry for justice, the implementation of a truth commission and other transitional justice mechanisms is possible in Sri Lanka. 

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