An uncertain future for Sri Lanka

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
25 Jul 2009

For many Sri Lankans, the end of the fighting a few months ago was a cause of rejoicing, or at least relief. Government forces had won a decisive victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Both sides had often disregarded the rules of armed conflict and human rights, mistreating civilians or putting them at risk. In the final months, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians had found themselves trapped in the war zone and some were killed or injured.

But the defeat of the Tigers brought the hope that those most deeply affected could begin to rebuild their lives and that underlying tensions and a sense of alienation among many ethnic minority Sri Lankans could be resolved.

Of course, for those Tamils who had identified with the Tiger cause (including many living overseas), there was a sense of disappointment. However, the Tigers lost much support due to their use of terrorist methods against unarmed and defenceless people of other communities, conscription of Tamil child-soldiers, harsh mistreatment and sometimes murder of Tamil adults who did not obey them, opposition to democracy and their unwillingness to negotiate seriously, instead using peace efforts as an opportunity to re-arm.

What is more, the government had repeatedly claimed that it was at war with the Tigers, not with ordinary people, whom indeed, it intended to free from their control. There was a public commitment for a Sri Lanka in which the fruits of peace could be enjoyed by all its citizens, not just by the Sinhalese majority.

The United Nations and many international agencies were more than willing to assist with tackling the humanitarian challenge of feeding, housing, providing sanitation and healthcare for, and resettling around 300,000 people. So though there were many practical difficulties to overcome and much grieving to be done, there were fresh possibilities.

Now, however, causes for optimism are fading.

The camps

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had previously been trapped in the war-zone are now interned in camps and are being allowed little contact with the outside world. Some Sri Lankan state officials have worked hard with aid agencies to improve conditions after the squalor of the first few weeks or so, when they were caught unawares by the scale of the problem. But the freedom which so many Tamils longed for has not yet been granted, apart from a few, mainly elderly, inhabitants who have been allowed to leave.

While the government initially pledged that most IDPs would be resettled within the next few months, there has been little sign of such a process. This confinement in a crowded space of civilians who have already suffered greatly is a hazard to physical and psychological health and, if it continues, illegal.

Various excuses have been given: for instance that the north needs to be cleared of landmines and camp residents screened in case some are Tigers still committed to their cause who might carry out terrorist acts. Some IDPs are indeed homeless and might need to rely on aid agencies working with the state to meet their needs for quite a while longer. Yet if people are willing to take the risk of mines, or have relatives or friends with whom they can stay, this is their right.

As for screening, many formerly recruited to the Tigers (whether willingly or by force) have already been identified and it should be possible to begin to release, at least, the remaining adults and children. Any risk that still-active fighters might be let out is far outweighed by the possibility that those resentful about being confined might be tempted to embrace a cause which they would otherwise firmly reject.

It was, after all, anger at being discriminated against and victimised which led increasing numbers of Tamils many years ago to support the Tigers and other nationalist groups, enabling armed conflict to escalate. Militarism and violence within, as well as between, communities caused great suffering. It is firmly to be hoped that such a situation will never arise again in Sri Lanka.

Sizeable numbers of Tamils now behind barbed wire, saw relatives and friends killed by the Tigers while trying to escape, were injured themselves, had their children or grandchildren conscripted by force or had to hide them in underground bunkers for protection. Most are now in Menik Farm, the largest camp, rebranded a ‘welfare village’, with banks, schools, medical facilities and a supermarket.

There have been reported attempts to replace temporary with permanent structures. There are fears on the part of some aid workers and diplomats that the interned Tamils will be held indefinitely.

Suppressing dissent

It has been suggested that these people are being kept confined for fear that they will provide evidence that the government carried out shelling with reckless disregard for civilian lives during the war. Certainly, the Sri Lankan state is highly defensive and intolerant of criticism, despite military victory and the president’s current popularity.

Intimidation of, and attacks on, independent journalists have continued even after the end of the war and those who question government actions risk being labelled as Tiger sympathisers or traitors.

But trying to prevent displaced people from telling their stories also prevents them from describing Tiger abuses of human rights. And holding them in camps is itself an abuse, carried out publicly in the gaze of the world. If the government is trying to protect its reputation and suppress information on its shortcomings, it is doing a very bad job.

Keeping journalists away has further fuelled mistrust of the government’s intentions. The United Nations and foreign governments have raised serious concerns. So far the Sri Lankan authorities have managed to deflect pressure, and have just secured an International Monetary Fund loan to help with rebuilding and development. But if they continue in the current manner, they may lose crucial support internationally, especially if donors and aid agencies fear that they are being implicated in illegal activities.

Winning support in the South

It is also possible that some in the government and possibly in the military, feel that being visibly unjust to Tamils will win them support from Sinhalese chauvinist political parties and voters, especially in the run-up to elections.

There are indeed some small parties which applaud a ‘tough’ stance. And some Sinhalese voters will be attracted by the notion that their community will be in a dominant position. They may also resent ordinary Tamils for not doing enough to distance themselves from the Tigers, whose terrorist attacks wrought havoc throughout the island.

Yet large numbers of Sinhalese people are more than willing to support constitutional reforms that would help Tamils and other minorities to feel included and respected, thus increasing the chances of enduring peace and of creating a firm foundation for the future.

An All Party Representative Committee (APRC) set up by the President had, after extensive consultation, come up with a package of such proposed reforms, including devolution. This would include certain decisions being taken by elected provincial leaders instead of central government in areas where Tamils are the majority.

This package was then shelved. But research carried out in March 2009 under the auspices of Dr Colin Irwin of the University of Liverpool, using methods developed in the Irish conflict, came up with interesting conclusions.

A random sample of 1,700 Sri Lankans were polled in various parts of the country except the Northern province, with questions on each of the main aspects of the APRC proposals, including divisions of powers between central government and the provinces in the context of a unitary state, an end to the executive presidency, equal status for Sinhala and Tamil as national languages, ‘pride of place’ for Buddhism with religious freedom for all, equality of all citizens before the law and an independent judiciary.

On each issue, a sizeable majority of both Sinhalese and Tamil people who had an opinion, regarded the proposal as essential, desirable, acceptable or at least tolerable.

The most controversial proposal among Tamils was on religious rights, which 28 per cent found unacceptable, perhaps because of the idea that Buddhism should be privileged above other faiths. Among the Sinhalese people polled, the proposal to move away from an executive presidency aroused the most controversy, with 23 per cent regarding it as unacceptable, perhaps because the president is so popular at present.

Yet, overall, the degree of consensus is striking. If the president decided to move forward on these proposals, the objections of Sinhalese chauvinist hardliners would almost certainly be swept away by a tide of support in both the majority and minority communities.

In fact, the government has pledged to take forward a weaker form of devolution/decentralisation set out in what is known as the 13th Amendment, which was agreed a couple of decades ago but has not yet been fully put in place. Yet, in recent weeks, the president has seemed to shy away from definitely taking forward even this limited shift of power from the centre to the provinces. Moderate figures in the government seem increasingly to have been sidelined or forced out by extremists who claim to champion the Sinhalese, despite the fact that these politicians do not have a great deal of popular support.

Overall, moderate Tamils, human rights activists of all ethnic communities and well-wishers of Sri Lanka overseas are increasingly uneasy about the direction taken. There are even fears that the government may be planning to alter the demographic balance of the north by shifting Sinhalese settlers there while holding large numbers of Tamil civilians in camps on an ongoing basis.

Preventing a downward spiral

If the government feels that accounts of what it is doing are exaggerated and that speculation on what it might do is incorrect, it has only itself to blame for a public relations fiasco. The public utterances of some ministers and their apparent disregard for the rule of law have further discredited the Sri Lankan authorities. Without greater transparency, rapid resettlement of those displaced by war and active commitment to democracy and human rights on the part of those holding power, the situation will continue to slide downhill.

For people of all faiths and none who seek peace built on a firm foundation of equality and justice for all, the situation is worrying. It would be regrettable if the opportunities opened up by the end of the fighting were squandered in an attempt to gain short-term political advantage or appease extremists.

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(c) Savi Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate and former member of the Jubilee Group, Savi is also a trustee of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).

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