Few countries torn by persistent and bloody ethnic war for decades, have recovered such a semblance of normalcy and equilibrium – albeit not of mutual ethnic understanding or perfect accommodation – as has Sri Lanka since the comprehensive defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. Despite shrill concerns articulated by the ‘international community’ on the possibility of the extended internment of displaced Tamils, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) moved quickly on their resettlement and rehabilitation, with more than 97 per cent of persons displaced by the conflict resettled in their places of origin in the Northeast by November 17, 2011. Of the 280,000 internally displaced people, over 270,000 have already returned home under the Government’s National Resettlement Strategy.
There were also strong ‘international’ apprehensions regarding the treatment of the remnants of LTTE cadres. However, of 11,500 terrorists who surrendered or were arrested at the end of the war in 2009, 8,500 have been rehabilitated and reintegrated, while roughly 3,000 accused of war-crimes continue under detention. On January 18, 2011, President Mahinda Rajapakse appointed a four-member Committee to study the cases of detained LTTE suspects and to recommend suitable action to expedite the cases against them. The Committee was appointed following a recommendation made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in its Interim Report. On September 26, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris stated that scores of cadres of the LTTE were likely to be prosecuted for crimes committed during the three-decade conflict that ended in 2009.
There has, moreover, been a remarkable resurrection of democratic structures across the country, including conflict-ravaged Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. Since the end of war the Government has conducted the General Elections of April 8 and April 20, 2010, which recorded a 61.26 per cent voter turnout. The Presidential election took place on January 26, 2010, and witnessed 74.49 per cent polling. More importantly, elections for local bodies across the country, including the war-ravaged Northern area, were concluded peacefully in 2011. Elections for 299 out of the 335 local bodies were conducted in two phases (March 17 and January 23) in 2011. Elections for 11 local bodies had been held in the Northeast in 2008-09, and for another 23 local bodies, including the Municipal Councils of Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, had been postponed under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) due to the Cricket World Cup and other reasons, as noted by Election Commission. The elections for all but one Provincial Council have also been conducted. Elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) are yet to be held, with the Government arguing that these must be preceded by a completion of the resettlement process.
The wounds of the past, however, continue to rankle, and an ethnic reconciliation and political settlement remain elusive. On November 23, 2011, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed a motion to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), a 31-member quasi-judicial body comprising 19 members nominated by the UPFA and 12 by the Opposition, to formulate a political solution to the country’s ethnic issue. Soon after, the Leader of the House, Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, requested the Chief Opposition Whip John Amaratunga to hand over the list of names of Opposition members to be appointed to the Committee. The constitution of the PSC has, however, been delayed due to the failure of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to hand over names of its representatives.
The TNA had earlier alleged that the PSC was no more than a delaying tactic. President Mahinda Rajapakse, however, denied the allegation and argued that the PSC could work within a time frame to reach its mandated conclusions. Earlier, on August 4, 2011, the Government had rejected TNA’s two-week ultimatum to come out with ‘devolution’ details, arguing that it had now embarked on the process to establish the PSC to define the ‘political solution’. The TNA had set the deadline earlier that day, during the course of 10th round of talks, the first round of which commenced on January 10, 2011.
Meanwhile, TNA raised various objections regarding the resettlement policies, accusing the Government of a deliberate ploy to change the demographic profile of the northern and eastern parts of the country where ethnic Tamils were a majority. Accordingly, TNA politicians on October 17, 2011, staged a protest in northern Vavuniya town to highlight how new Sinhala majority settlements were being pushed by the Government in the country’s northern and eastern regions. The Government, however, denied these allegations. Later on October 24, 2011, the TNA filed a Fundamental Rights petition before the Supreme Court against the Government’s move to register the lands in the North and East. Under National Land Title Registration Program implemented by the Government in 2007, all the land in the country was to be surveyed and demarcated to ensure their ownership. The land-owners, accordingly were instructed to inform the authorities about their lands following the receipt of a title Certificate from the Government. TNA, however, complained that the measure was in operation only in the North and the East (dominated by the Tamil minority) and not in other parts of the country. Consequently, TNA interpreted this move as an aggressive colonization process undertaken by the Government to dilute the Tamil dominance in the North and the East.
Allegations of excesses and brutalities committed on Tamils, both civilians and militants, by the Sri Lankan Security Force (SLSF) also continue to haunt the Government, with the Tamil Diaspora and various international human rights groups stridently pushing this line. One prominent initiative in this direction was the three-member Panel of Experts, headed by Marzuki Darusman, appointed by the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2010 to advise him on human rights and humanitarian law violations during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The Darusman Panel handed over its Report on April 12, 2011, to the UN Chief, accusing both the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Army of committing war-crimes. The Panel said there were “credible allegations” of serious violations of international law by Government Forces and the LTTE “some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The Darusman Report was finally released on April 25, 2011, along with a statement by Ban Ki-moon. In his statement, the UN Secretary General said that, though he could not order an international investigation into the deaths, the UN would, nevertheless, hold an inquiry on events in the final months of the war, following criticism by the Darusman Panel that more could have been done to save lives. Welcoming the report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on April 27, 2011, called for further international investigation on alleged war crimes. However, no such further investigation has been reported so far. Sri Lanka has rejected the Darusman Report as being ‘fundamentally flawed’ and based on ‘biased material’ presented without verification. A statement issued by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) added, further, “The public release of the Report at this stage is divisive, and disrupts our efforts to reinforce peace, security and stability in Sri Lanka. It feeds into the political agendas of interested parties.”
Earlier, the President had appointed a fact finding committee, the LLRC , on May 15, 2010, to allegations of human rights violations by the SLSF. The Commission submitted its final report to the President on November 20, 2011. The LLRC report, which, President Mahinda Rajapakse claimed, would be credible, unlike the Darusman Report, is to be placed before Parliament in December 2011.
Yet another cause of concern for Sri Lanka through 2011 were the continuous reports of the overseas activities of cadres and sympathizers of the LTTE. Sri Lankan politicians, Armed Force officers, diplomats and intellectuals have been repeatedly emphasizing the clandestine agenda of overseas elements of LTTE and the potential threat they constitute to Sri Lanka. On August 1, 2011, the Sri Lankan Government updated a request to the European Union (EU) to list front organizations of the LTTE as terrorist entities. The Sri Lankan Embassy at Brussels disclosed that the request was made on July 28, 2011, as the EU re-listed the LTTE as a terrorist entity through a regulation implemented by the Council on July 18, 2011. According to reports, individuals arrested by European and other authorities in 2010 and 2011 had been found to be members of LTTE-affiliated groups such as the Tamil Coordinating Committee (TCC), the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), and the Tamil Youth Organization (TYO). Significantly, on May 21, 2011, a Norway-based leader of the LTTE, Perinpanayagam Sivaparan alias Nediyawan, was arrested by the Netherlands Police and produced in a court in Oslo, Norway.
More worryingly, a report released by the US Department of State on August 18, 2011, claimed that overseas cadres of LTTE continued to procure weapons, while the LTTE Diaspora remained persistent in supporting the organization financially. It stated that, despite its military defeat in Sri Lanka at the hands of Government Forces, the LTTE’s international network of financial support continue to exist. Meanwhile, the Commander of Sri Lanka Army Eastern Command Major General Boniface Perera on July 1, 2011, had warned that armed groups in the Eastern Province would suffer unless they surrendered all their weapons.
Sri Lanka’s tryst with terrorist violence is clearly over for the time being, and the nation is enjoying a cherished respite after decades of bloodshed. The surviving vestiges of the LTTE, both within and without, remain insignificant, and do not constitute any imminent or substantial threat to the security and sovereignty of the nation. The real challenge the country faces is to end the age old bad blood between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil communities. It is altogether unrealistic to expect a magical and immediate resolution in this context, but the tentative steps in this direction do suggest an unfortunate ambivalence, on the part of both the country’s majority Sinhala and minority Tamil leaderships.
Institute for Conflict Management