‘After 30 years we now see the dawn that will take us to a golden age of the future,’ declared Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa as he presided over the third Victory Day celebration on May 20. Over 12,000 personnel participated in the parade of military and police equipment used to defeat the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 after a three-decade long war.
“I believe a journalist can change the world,” says exiled Sri Lankan journalist Sonali Samarasinghe, “if not why are we here then”. Sonali is one of three exiled journalists, from the minority Tamil and majority Sinhalese communities, whose stories are told in a new Norwegian film, Silenced Voices, by Beate Arnestad previewed last night at the Fritt Ord Foundation in Oslo.
“In trying to do good, we have been living beyond our moral resources and have fallen into hypocrisy and self-righteousness” — William V. Cannon, commenting on the Vietnam War, New York Times, February 6, 1966
“Conquer the angry man by love, Conquer the ill-natured man by goodness. Conquer the miser with generosity. Conquer the liar with truth.” — The Dhammapada p. 223
Three years after the end of decades-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka, there are new government-sponsored efforts afoot to encourage people to speak both national languages – Sinhala and Tamil – and to promote English as a common link language. Toward that goal, President Mahinda Rajapakse has named 2012 the “Year of Trilingualism,” kicking off a 10-year plan to make Sri Lanka a nation of three official languages: Sinhala, Tamil, and English.
Even as attention is riveted on the bloodshed in Syria, another conflict, far more deadly, is belatedly attracting the notice it deserves.
Beginning this week, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva has returned to an issue that has haunted it since 2009 — the bloody finish to Sri Lanka’s civil war. That conflict ended on a stretch of beach in the country’s northeast, as the remaining fighters of the Tamil Tigers and tens of thousands of traumatized civilians were surrounded by and surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army.
Sri Lankans and many abroad rejoiced at the defeat of a force that had routinely deployed terrorist tactics. But even as the government’s military campaign was under way, it became clear that the cost in civilian lives from its attacks on the Tigers was enormous. Right after the war, the Human Rights Council, to the shock of many observers, passed a resolution praising Sri Lanka’s conduct of the war. Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, promised Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the time that he would address the question of accountability for violations against civilians.
When, a year later, the government had done nothing to carry out Rajapaksa’s commitment, the secretary general asked the three of us to study the allegations of atrocities during the last stages of the war and Sri Lanka’s response. In our report, we found credible evidence that both sides had systematically flouted the laws of war, leading to as many as 40,000 deaths — many multiples more than caused by the strife in Libya or Syria.
The bulk of that total was attributable to deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate governmental attacks on civilians, through massive shelling and aerial bombardment, including on clearly marked hospitals.
Rather than tackling these allegations head-on through a truth commission or criminal investigations, Sri Lanka created a “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission,” whose mandate, composition and methods all cast serious doubt on its willingness to uncover what really happened in those fateful months.
When the commission issued its final report last November, it ignored or played down our report’s conclusions and characterized civilian deaths as stemming from the army’s response to Tamil Tiger shelling or cross-fire — as sporadic, exceptional and mostly inevitable in the heat of battle.
When it came time to proposing next steps for the government, it called for investigations by the same entities — the army and the attorney general — who have a track record of ignoring governmental abuses for decades.
The report had some welcome elements, too. It recognized some of the root causes of the war, as well as the responsibility of both the government and Tigers for civilian casualties. And it endorsed our view that Sri Lanka had a duty to provide truth, justice and reparations to victims; release detainees; and protect the state’s besieged journalists.
Yet the fact is that numerous recommendations of prior commissions of inquiry have not been implemented by the government.
The Human Rights Council’s members are currently looking at a draft resolution, circulating at the initiative of the United States, to demand action from Sri Lanka on uncovering the truth and achieving some real accountability. The United States deserves a great deal of credit for trying to get the council to move on this issue. It is time for the council to correct its embarrassing decision from 2009.
Yet such a demand is not enough. Given Sri Lanka’s unwillingness to take concrete steps, the best way to get to the truth is for the council to create an independent investigative body to determine the facts and identify those responsible, as we recommended in our report.
For Sri Lanka to experience a true peace, rather than simply the peace of the victor, truth and accountability are essential. This is the lesson from states as varied as South Africa, Sierra Leone and Argentina. The lack of much outside interest in the bloodshed while it happened cannot be an excuse for continuing to ignore the situation. The international community must now assume its duty to ensure that Sri Lanka fulfills its responsibilities to all its people and to the rest of the world.
Original Post | New York Times | March 2, 2012
Touted as historic for being the first elections to be held in Sri Lanka since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), this week’s poll did not mark a departure from intimidation and violence. History, in fact, repeated itself as Mahinda Rajapaksa, was re-elected, in part because the minority Tamil community could not exercise its franchise without fear.
In November 2005, the Tigers forcibly prevented Tamils from voting, an exercise that catapulted Mr Rajapaksa into power by a narrow margin. The Tigers were defeated in the bloodiest phase of a three-decade-long conflict last year, but nearly seven months later, a large number of Tamils in the north east could not vote as they were coerced to abstain, unable to register, or had no transport to reach polling stations.
Elsewhere,state power was brazenly abused and Mr Rajapaksa’s main challenger, Sarath Fonseka, was undermined and compared to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. General Fonseka’s supporters were threatened and attacked and as a final straw, his candidacy was challenged in court. He has in turn contested the results and accused the government of trying to have him assassinated.
With its claims of being a democracy already in question after the ruthless end to ethnic conflict, marked by a callous contempt for civilian lives, Sri Lanka does not need charges of election rigging.
What it needs is constitutional and institutional reform to build a more inclusive and just democracy. But President Rajapaksa, considered a war hero by the Sinhalese majority, could be held accountable for war crimes; and he has also failed to offer a credible proposal for political reform that would address the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities.
This is not a fresh start for a country recovering from three decades of conflict. His re-election could spell a continuation of the same set of hard-line policies, corruption and nepotism that would weaken an already battered democracy. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers will remain hollow unless the president makes moves to establish a more inclusive and democratic state which shows genuine commitment to the rule of law and human rights. So far, his track record remains questionable.
Original Post | January 28 2010 | Charu Lata Hogg
While hectic activity is underway to restart the peace process with a host of international players due in the days to come, the government is finding itself circumscribed by its own past rhetoric on the issue of the interim administration and the status of the LTTE, with the Tigers driving home the advantage in a series of master strokes.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga threw caution to the winds and invited Norway to revive the peace process as a knee jerk reaction following the parliamentary defeat on the Speaker’s vote without formulating a proper strategy, a decision that could well haunt her in the weeks to come.