Over a year after the end of the war, the Sri Lankan regime is continuing the politics of confrontation, undermining the possibilities for reconciliation in the post-war period. There remains an urgent need for reconciliation between multiple actors: between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, polarised by nationalist mobilisation; between the state and minorities who have faced majoritarian discrimination; and between the government and the United Nations, which have become increasingly estranged. The challenge before Sri Lanka now is whether it can move forward as a genuinely multi-ethnic polity and an accepted member of the international community, particularly when local participation and international support are both vital for the reconstruction and development of the war-ravaged society. Since the end of the brutal conflict 15 months ago, Sri Lanka has also completed two national elections, ensuring the political stability of Mahinda Rajapakse’s government and strengthening his hand. However, the president’s actions on the ground, and his administration’s response to international engagement, would have one believe that the conflict was not over.
In recent weeks, the government has restricted the freedom of movement of NGOs into the north, while extending requirements for Defence Ministry clearance for nationals and journalists to visit the area. Organisations providing psycho-social care have been denied permission to work in the north, with the government’s priority on reconstruction remaining focused exclusively on physical infrastructure, despite the continuing trauma of a war-affected population. This paranoia towards the north is worrying, for an overly security-oriented approach will only further alienate the already-sullen Tamil community. Indeed, any serious approach towards reconciliation needs to begin with demilitarisation, while ensuring democratisation with the full participation of the local population. The roots of the conflict lie in the political grievances of the minorities, which need to be addressed through a political settlement that reforms the majoritarian centralised state through the genuine devolution of power to the provinces and power-sharing at the Centre.
Instead, the government’s current approach is focusing solely on the physical resettlement of those displaced from the Vanni, in the north – over 300,000 people caught in the wrong place in the last phase of the war. Thereafter, it wants to move forward with large development projects, in what seems to be intended to bring in billions of dollars in donor funding. The problem, of course, is that resettlement is not merely about physical return, and must include rehabilitation and the resumption of social and economic daily life. Neither is the current displaced population limited to those who were forced to move during the last phase of the war. Rather, this also includes those northern Muslims who were forcibly evicted by the LTTE from the north as far back as 1990, as well as individuals moved out of military-designated High Security Zones, Sinhalese villagers from border villages, and refugees who have gone to India. The resettlement of such a wide range of people can cause conflict on a range of issues, including access to land and state resources, and requires a sensitive approach to both the different forms of displacement and the common issues that underlie such experiences.
Days after the end of the war in May 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Sri Lanka, where he made a joint statement with President Rajapakse. Many of the issues outlined in that communiqué have been points of contention over the last year, and might well be at the root of escalating estrangement between the government and the UN.
In the statement, President Rajapakse and Secretary-General Ban agreed to the following:
the United Nations will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the IDPs [internally displaced people] now in Vavuniya and Jaffna. The Government will continue to provide access to humanitarian agencies. The Government will expedite the necessary basic and civil infrastructure as well as means of livelihood necessary for the IDPs to resume their normal lives … Sri Lanka reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations. The Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government will take measures to address those grievances.
Particularly important here was the emphasis on a process of accountability. Reconciliation with its own people, in relation to Sri Lanka’s obligations set by international law, involves tackling the difficult issues surrounding accountability for abuses during the conflict. But the overly militarised approach of the government and the claims, reminiscent of ‘war on terror’ rhetoric, that defeating extremism can justify any cost to civilians, have put the government on a confrontational path with the UN.
This was the context in which Secretary-General Ban announced, on 22 June, that he would appoint a panel to advise him on reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka, and whose advice he expected the government too to take into consideration. However, the very next day Foreign Minister G L Peiris condemned the appointment of the advisory panel, stating that visas would not be issued to the panel’s members to visit Sri Lanka. Wimal Weerawansa, a prominent minister and Sinhalese-nationalist ideologue, organised a protest in front of the UN headquarters, launching a ‘fast unto death’ and blocking the movement of UN staff – both actions that seemed to have the tacit support of the president. Thereafter, President Rajapakse did not accept the subsequent token resignation of Weerawansa, and it was he who personally went to the protest and gave him water – initiating a face-saving retreat from the farcical fast. The fiasco led to Secretary-General Ban, in an unprecedented move, recalling the UN resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne.
The Sri Lankan government is clearly intent on alienating itself further from the minorities in the country, even as it isolates itself from the international community. These developments can have longer-term consequences for the economy and population. It is only if sections of the Sinhalese voter base – whom alone the president and government seem to care for – take stock of these developments that Sri Lanka could ultimately move onto the true path of reconciliation. One hopes that President Rajapakse will soon realise that the war is over, and that he will reach out to the Tamils and mend fences with the United Nations.