President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s authoritarian and Sinhalese nationalist post-war policies are undermining prospects for reconciling Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities, weakening democracy for all Sri Lankans and increasing the risk of a return to violent conflict.
Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses how the Rajapaksa government continues to use its war-time “with us or against us” paradigm to consolidate power and deny the Tamil minority’s legitimate grievances against the state.
“Two years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is further from reconciliation than ever”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers continue to repress the media and political opponents, while manipulating elections and silencing civil society”.
Decades of political violence and civil war have polarised Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities and politicised institutions, particularly those involved in law and order. Each of the major ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – has suffered immensely. Conflicts have left hundreds of thousands dead, injured or displaced and entrenched fears and misunderstandings in each community.
Instead of addressing these post-war challenges, the government has increasingly co-opted opponents, undermined institutions and cut minorities out of decisions on their economic and political futures, clinging to its claim that the war was about “terrorism” and not an ethnic conflict. It has controlled narratives both within and outside the country, reacting furiously to any challenge to the official version. Its hand is strengthened by the unwillingness of much of the million-strong Tamil diaspora to recognise the brutality of the LTTE and its share of responsibility for a largely broken Tamil society.
The government tells the international community and its own people a different story of economic and political progress. But this is belied by facts on the ground. Northern areas once ruled by the LTTE are now dominated by the military, which has taken over civil administration and controls all aspects of daily life – undermining what remains of local capacity. Democratic political activities in the north and east have been suppressed through the use of violent and corrupt ethnic Tamil proxies and other Rajapaksa loyalists. Killings, disappearances and violence against women continue to plague the north and east. Some 180,000 people – including many Muslims expelled from the north by the LTTE two decade ago – are still displaced, while most of those “resettled” in their home districts lack basic necessities.
Reconciliation will slip further out of reach if the government maintains its policies. Partners, especially India, Japan, the U.S., UK, European Union (EU) and UN, should send a strong message against increasing authoritarianism and condition aid on transparency and restored civilian administration in the north and east. An international inquiry into alleged atrocities by both the government and LTTE in the final stages of the war is needed; UN member states should actively work to establish one, unless the government shows conclusively by year’s end that it is willing and able to ensure accountability on its own.
“To avoid an eventual return to violence, the government must change course drastically”, says Alan Keenan, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Sri Lanka. “The 30-year emergency needs to be lifted, the military should cease running civilian life in the north and east, and the rule of law and accountability should be made top priorities. Sri Lanka may be ‘post-war’, but it will never be ‘post-conflict’ until all its people are free to build a credible narrative of its past and to play meaningful roles in their own governance”.