Sri Lankan police have recently uncovered ammunition, a suicide vest, and explosives in Chavakachcheri, a town in the country’s north. It’s widely (and realistically) believed that this is an old arms cache. Let’s keep in mind that from 1983-2009 a brutal civil war raged in this South Asian island nation. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were fighting for a separate Tamil state in the country’s Northern and Eastern Provinces. In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government – under the leadership of former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa – militarily crushed the LTTE. However, Sinhala nationalism and the idea (however remote) of the LTTE regrouping within the country can still be used for domestic political gain, especially by Rajapaksa. After all, in the eyes of many Sinhala people, Sri Lanka’s overwhelming ethnic majority, Rajapaksa remains a war hero who defeated a ruthless separatist organization. Though Rajapaksa unexpectedly lost the country’s January 2015 presidential election, he is currently a member of parliament. Given the wide-ranging corruption allegations against him and his family, he has no incentive to leave public life. In that context, it’s unsurprising that the former president has chosen to weigh in regarding the recent arms discovery. According to Rajapaksa, the weapons that the police found weren’t old, the implication being that the country should be concerned about a return to Tamil militancy in the Tamil-dominated north.
Could Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former defense secretary (and brother of previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa), bring the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) together? Evidently a member of the country’s joint opposition has suggested that Rajapaksa be appointed to parliament, the implication being that this move would help to unify a political party that has remained divided since Maithripala Sirisena assumed the presidency in January 2015.
In Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena had promised progress regarding Tamil political prisoners, although we’ve seen little of that. Unfortunately, the president’s dithering project has continued — with no end in sight. More broadly, the Sri Lankan government has made big commitments regarding transitional justice and those changes, if they ever happen, will come incrementally. However, we haven’t seen much in the way of incremental change since Colombo co-sponsored a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka in October 2015.
During the U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, Washington should elevate Sri Lanka’s transitional justice debate. The unexpected election of Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka’s January 2015 polls has resulted in the Barack Obama administration’s fervent desire to turn the page on what became a strained, bitter bilateral relationship under the reign of the previous president. Mahinda Rajapaksa had been in power for nearly a decade and oversaw the decisive military defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers – ending a civil war which lasted from 1983-2009. Rajapaksa’s proclivity for corruption, nepotism, and heightened authoritarianism ultimately led to his unexpected ouster. Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, is currently in Washington, D.C. This high-level visit is due to evolving U.S.-Sri Lanka ties and the commencement of the first ever U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue. An array of issues such as economic and security cooperation, governance, and regional affairs will be discussed on February 26. It remains to be seen whether transitional justice will receive significant attention, either publicly or privately.
In spite of the country’s recent democratic gains, problems continue to plague Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern Province. It’s been over a year since Maithripala Sirisena assumed the presidency, although much about daily life in Sri Lanka’s war-torn Northern Province remains the same. “There’s a reduced number of troops on the road,” says Shalin Uthayarasa, a journalist. “We’re experiencing a temporary respite in repression.” Uthayarasa goes on to mention that his two previous points apply to ordinary people, but aren’t relevant for journalists or human rights activists, who continue to face threats (or worse) from state security personnel. “I’m sure they [the Sri Lanka Army] haven’t reduced troop numbers,” he tells me.
Reviewing a year of Sirisena’s presidency, Taylor Dibbert raised concerns on the urgent need for security sector reform, witness protection, and accountability for wartime abuses which could include war crimes. Full opinion reproduced below. In January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, unexpectedly thwarted Mahinda Rajapaksa's quest for an unprecedented third presidential term. According to his campaign pledges, Sirisena hoped to address various issues including constitutional reform, anti-corruption and improved governance. The broad coalition that supported his campaign could at least agree on one thing: that Rajapaksa needed to go. Years from now, how will the election of Sirisena be remembered? And what about healing those wounds of war and finding a lasting political solution to an ethnic conflict that has burned for seven decades?
Sri Lanka’s announcement of a special court to handle alleged wartime abuses should still be met with scepticism. Several weeks ago, Chandrika Kumaratunga announced that Sri Lanka would set up a special court to deal with alleged wartime abuses. Kumaratunga is the chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR); she served as President of Sri Lanka from 1994-2005. The news about a special court came as a surprise to many people. When the initial announcement was made, Kumaratunga stated that the court was expected to begin its work by late December or early January. Yet it remains unclear if that’s still the case.
Samantha Power, America’s Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), is in India and Sri Lanka from November 18 – 23. In India, she’s set to meet human rights activists, members of civil society and senior government officials. On November 20, she’ll give a speech about UN peacekeeping. While far less significant on the geopolitical front, Power’s visit to Sri Lanka could be a tricky balancing act. Regarding the Sri Lanka portion of her trip, the U.S. mission to the UN has stated the following: In Sri Lanka, Ambassador Power will highlight the United States’ commitment to strengthening the bilateral partnership, and she will underscore U.S. support for the country’s efforts toward reconciliation, accountability, and lasting peace in the aftermath of a devastating civil war. In Colombo, she will meet with senior government officials, community leaders, civil society groups, and youth.
Continuous monitoring of Sri Lanka's transitional justice plan is vital in discerning how committed the new government is to the commitments made at the United Nations Human Rights Council , warns Taylor Dibbert in the Huffington Post. Raising concern at Colombo's downplaying of international involvement in a criminal prosecution mechanism, Mr Dibbert writes, "Since the resolution was passed at the Council, Colombo has been downplaying the notion of any meaningful international involvement for its domestic audience. While the exact level of international involvement remains unknown, it's vital to reiterate that, in the form of the recently passed resolution, Colombo agreed to something other than a purely domestic process." "Monitoring the implementation of Colombo's transitional justice plan, like the larger set of commitments made in the recently passed resolution, is very important. Yet in order to accurately track progress, understanding the content of the latest resolution is absolutely essential. For that is how we can begin to discern whether Sri Lanka's new government is really serious about healing the wounds of war." Full piece reproduced below.
Writing in the Diplomat, Taylor Dibbert said it was time for Sri Lanka’s political leadership to explain the content of the UNHRC resolution clearly to all its citizens and explain the importance of reforms. Adding that Colombo “has been reluctant to take even small steps to reach out to the Tamil community,” Mr Dibbert questioned whether “worries over a Sinhala-Buddhist backlash would again be used to justify prevarication form those in power.” Full piece reproduced below. Sri Lanka’s new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, has now made a range of assurances via an extensive reform agenda and is now faced with the trickier task of implementation. Elections in January (when Sirisena defeated the increasingly authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa in his quest to win an unprecedented third term) and August parliamentary polls, combined with the recently passed UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on Sri Lanka, have presented the country with an unanticipated opening.