On May 19, 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group fighting for a separate state for Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of the country.
Unfortunately, after three decades of war, the Sri Lankan government – led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa – has shown little interest in truth and reconciliation, or in otherwise healing the country’s wounds. Instead, the government has embraced self-congratulatory rhetoric and pursued controversial policies that focus almost entirely on the reconstruction of physical infrastructure and economic development.
Despite significant international pressure, the Rajapaksa regime has not properly investigated widespread allegations of war crimes committed by both government forces and the LTTE at the end of the war. What is more, the regime’s post-war governance record has been atrocious. Indeed, credible allegations of war crimes coupled with ongoing human rights abuses have resulted in the passage of three UN Human Rights Council resolutions on Sri Lanka, over the past three years. The resolutions have been designed to promote reconciliation, accountability, and justice on the island. The most recent resolution – the strongest of the three – even asks the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct its own wartime investigation and monitor the government’s current performance on human rights and governance.
Now is the time for a reality check because the situation in Sri Lanka is not improving.
Media freedom continues to be severely restricted. Since the war’s conclusion, numerous websites have been blocked, self-censorship has been common and the assault, arrest, and intimidation of journalists have continued. This year, Sri Lanka is ranked 165 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index for 2014 ranks Sri Lanka 4th in the world –when journalists are killed, perpetrators are not punished.
An appalling level of ethnic and religious violence has also persisted in the country. Attacks on Muslim, Christian, and Hindu places of worship, as well as hate speech, have been all too common. This has partly resulted from a rise in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and the regime’s unwillingness to control Buddhist extremist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). In fact, the BBS has received overt support from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the powerful defense secretary and brother of the president.
The search for a political solution to address the Tamil people’s longstanding grievances goes to the very core of Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict. Yet, the regime remains intransigent in discussions with the opposition, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), over a reasonable power-sharing agreement.
While problems pertaining to governance, impunity, and human rights are well-known in the North and East, they exist in southern Sri Lanka as well. Recently, a group of opposition parliamentarians from the United National Party (UNP) visited Hambantota – President Rajapaksa’s hometown and a stronghold of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). While there, the group was attacked by thugs. To make matters worse, Mr. Eraj Ravindra Fernando – the mayor of Hambantota and member of the UPFA – was photographed chasing after UNP parliamentarians with a handgun.
In a particularly significant development, the government recently banned 16 Tamil diaspora organizations and 424 individuals for their supposed support of “terrorism” and the LTTE. The state justified the move by citing to a 2001 UN Security Council resolution, which was designed to thwart terrorist financing in the wake of 9/11. Officially, the ban deals principally with financial matters, and is intended to make it harder for covered groups to operate. Through its enforcement, the regime hopes to make it more onerous for community members residing in Sri Lanka to collaborate with affected individuals and organizations. For Tamils in the diaspora, the ban will make it more difficult to donate to good causes in Sri Lanka, since it includes the prospect of asset freezes and increased financial scrutiny.
More crucially, the prohibition will make many people in Sri Lanka more afraid of communicating – even remotely – with banned people, organizations, or those with tangential links to either. Thanks to Sri Lanka’s undemocratic anti-terror legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), people who communicate with banned individuals could be imprisoned for decades. The ban will also invariably discourage some people from passing along information – about human rights developments, for example – to those residing outside of Sri Lanka.
Canada, a strong critic of the Rajapaksa regime, was the first to announce it will not recognize the government ban. More recently, it seems clear Washington too will ignore the prohibition. Yet, even if other countries decide to disregard the ban, the culture of fear in Sri Lanka will remain ubiquitous – especially in the heavily militarized north.
The regime has recently claimed that the LTTE is regrouping inside Sri Lanka. In April, three men were killed during a shootout in Vavuniya district in the North. Precise details about what actually transpired remain ambiguous. At the same time, military search operations in the North and the arrest of people supposedly supporting the LTTE’s resurgence were widespread in March and April of this year.
The regime’s claim of a LTTE resurgence is very questionable. It is hard to believe that a few young men could (or would want to) rekindle an armed separatist movement so soon after the war’s conclusion. If the regime wants people to believe the LTTE is engaged in military operations on the island, it should begin by providing evidence that supports its assertion.
While long-term solutions for Sri Lanka’s problems must be homegrown, other actors can play a role in the short- to medium-term. The United States and other nations could start by putting the possibility of economic sanctions on the table; to begin, Washington could aim for a targeted sanctions regime in concert with other likeminded countries, including the United Kingdom. Defense and intelligence cooperation and future weapons sales to Sri Lanka also should be reconsidered. Visa and travel bans for senior government officials would be another step in the right direction.
The Obama administration would prefer that the Rajapaksa regime tilt toward Delhi and Washington, as opposed to Beijing, and may be disinclined to take action that would further antagonize the Sri Lankan government. Nonetheless, the United States has been pushing for change in Sri Lanka for many years now and significant resources have been invested in promoting human rights and democracy on the island.
The time for more decisive action from Washington is now long overdue.