Colombo risks squandering Sri Lanka’s hard-won peace

by Brahma Chellaney

If Sri Lanka is to become a tropical paradise again, it must build enduring peace. This will only occur through genuine interethnic equality, and a transition from being a unitary state to being a federation that grants provincial and local autonomy.

Yet even in victory the Sri Lankan government seems unable to define peace or outline a political solution to the long-standing cultural and political grievances of the Tamil minority, which makes up 12 percent of the 21.3-million population. A process of national reconciliation anchored in federalism and multiculturalism can succeed only if human-rights abuses by all parties are independently investigated. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has acknowledged that civilian casualties were “unacceptably high,” especially as the war built to a bloody crescendo.

The continuing air of martial triumph in Sri Lanka, though, is making it difficult to heal the wounds of war through three essential “Rs”: relief, recovery and reconciliation. In fact, the military victory bears a distinct family imprint: President Mahinda Rajapaksa was guided by two of his brothers, Gotabaya, the defense secretary who authored the war plan, and Basil, the presidential special adviser who formulated the political strategy. Yet another brother, Chamal, is the ports minister who awarded China a contract to build the billion-dollar Hambantotta port, on Sri Lanka’s southeast.

In return, Beijing provided Colombo not only the weapon systems that decisively tilted the military balance in its favor, but also the diplomatic cover to prosecute the war in defiance of international calls to cease offensive operations to help stanch rising civilian casualties. Through such support, China has succeeded in extending its strategic reach to a critically located country in India’s backyard that sits astride vital sea-lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean region.

Sinhalese nationalists now portray Rajapaksa as a modern-day Dutugemunu, a Sinhalese ruler who, according to legend, vanquished an invading Tamil army led by Kind Elara more than 2,000 years ago. But four months after the Tamil Tigers were crushed, it is clear the demands of peace extend far beyond the battlefield. What is needed is a fundamental shift in thegovernment’s policies to help create greater interethnic equality, regional autonomy and a reversal of the state-driven militarization of society.

But Rajapaksa, despite promising to address the root causes of conflict, has declared: “Federalism is out of the question.” How elusive the peace dividend remains can be seen from Colombo’s decision to press ahead with a further expansion of the military. Not content with increasing the military’s size five-fold since the late 1980s to more than 200,000 troops today, Colombo is raising the strength further to 300,000, in the name of “eternal vigilance.” Soon after the May victory, the government, for example, announced a drive to recruit 50,000 new troops to help manage the northern areas captured from the rebels.

The Sri Lankan military already has more troops than that of Britain or Israel. The planned further expansion would make the military in tiny Sri Lanka larger than the militaries of major powers like France, Japan and Germany. By citing a continuing danger of guerrilla remnants reviving the insurgency, Rajapaksa, in fact, seems determined to keep a hyper-militarized Sri Lanka on something of a war footing. Yet another issue of concern is the manner the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians still held by the government in camps where, in the recent words of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, the “internally displaced persons are effectively detained under conditions of internment.”

Such detention risks causing more resentment among the Tamils and sowing the seeds of future unrest. The internment was intended to help weed out rebels, many of whom already have been identified and transferred to military sites. Those in the evacuee camps are the victims and survivors of the deadly war. To confine them in the camps against their will is to further victimize and traumatize them.

Sri Lanka’s interests would be better served through greater transparency. It should grant the U.N., International Red Cross and nongovernmental organizations at home and abroad full and unhindered access to care for and protect the civilians in these camps, allowing those who wish to leave the camps to do so and live with relatives and friends. Otherwise, it seriously risks breeding further resentment.

Then there is the issue of thousands of missing people, mostly Tamils. Given that many families are still searching for missing members, the government ought to publish a list of all those it is holding — in evacuee camps, prisons, military sites and other security centers. Even suspected rebels in state custody ought to be identified and not denied access to legal representation.

Authorities should disclose the names of those they know to be dead — civilians and insurgents — and the possible circumstances of their death. Also, the way to fill the power vacuum in the Tamil-dominated north is not by dispatching additional army troops in tens of thousands, but by setting up a credible local administration to keep the peace and initiate rehabilitation and reconstruction after more than 25 years of war.

Any government move to return to the old policy of settling Sinhalese in Tamil areas is certain to stir up fresh problems. More fundamentally, such have been the costs of victory that Sri Lankan civil society stands badly weakened and civil liberties curtailed. The wartime suppression of a free press and curtailment of fundamental rights continues in peacetime, undermining democratic freedoms and creating a fear psychosis.

Public meetings cannot be held without government permission. Sweeping emergency regulations also remain in place, arming the security forces with expansive powers of search, arrest, detention and seizure of property. Individuals can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 12 months. For the process of reconciliation to begin in earnest, it is essential the government shed its war-gained powers and accept, as Pillay says, “an independent and credible international investigation . . . to ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international human-rights and international humanitarian law” by all parties during the conflict.

Pillay has gone on to say: “A new future for the country, the prospect of meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace, where respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms can become a reality for all, hinges upon such an in-depth and comprehensive approach.”

Unfortunately, Colombo still seeks to hold back the truth. Those who speak up are labeled “traitors” (if they are Sinhalese) or accused of being on the payroll of the Tamil diaspora. Last year, a Sri Lankan minister accused the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, of being on the rebels’ payroll after Holmes called Sri Lanka one of the world’s most dangerous places for aid workers.

The media remains muzzled, and a host of journalists have been murdered or imprisoned. Lawyers who dare to take up sensitive cases face threats. Recently, a well-known astrologer who predicted the president’s ouster from power was arrested. And this month, the U.N. Children’s Fund communications chief was ordered to leave Sri Lanka after he discussed the plight of children caught up in the government’s military campaign.

Rather than begin a political dialogue on regional autonomy and a more level-playing field for the Tamils in education and government jobs, the government has seen its space get constricted by the post-victory upsurge of Sinhalese chauvinism opposed to the devolution of powers to the minorities.

The hardline constituency argues that the Tamils shouldn’t get in defeat what they couldn’t secure through three decades of unrest and violence. Indeed, such chauvinism seeks to tar federalism as a potential forerunner to secession, although the Tamil insurgency sprang from the state’s rejection of decentralization and power-sharing. The looming parliamentary and presidential elections also make devolution difficult, even though the opposition is splintered and Rajapaksa seems set to win a second term.

Reversing the militarization of society, ending the control of information as an instrument of state policy and promoting political and ethnic reconciliation are crucial to postconflict peace-building and to furthering the interests of all Sri Lankans — Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. So also is the need to discard the almost mono-ethnic character of the security forces. Colombo has to stop dragging its feet on implementing the constitution’s 13th amendment, which requires the ceding of some powers to the provincial or local level.

Sadly, there is little international pressure on Colombo, despite the leverage offered by the Sri Lankan economy’s need for external credit. The U.S. can veto any decision of the International Monetary Fund, but it chose to abstain from the recent IMF vote to give Colombo a $2.8 billion loan. In the face of China’s stonewalling at the U.N., Ban has been unable to appoint a special envoy on Sri Lanka. A U.N. special envoy can shine an international spotlight to help build pressure on a recalcitrant government. But on Sri Lanka, the best the U.N. has been able to do is to send a political official to Colombo this month for talks.

It is thus important for the democratic players, including the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway — co-chairs of the so-called Friends of Sri Lanka — and India, to coordinate their policies on Sri Lanka. If Rajapaksa continues to shun true reconciliation, these countries should ratchet up pressure on Colombo by lending support to calls for an international investigation into the thousands of civilian deaths in the final weeks of the war.

The International Criminal Court has opened an initial inquiry into Sri Lankan rights-abuse cases that could turn into a full-blown investigation. Sri Lanka, however, is not an ICC signatory and thus would have to consent — or be referred by the U.N. Security Council — for the ICC to have jurisdiction over it. As world history attests, peace sought through the suppression and humiliation of an ethnic community proves to be elusive.

If Rajapaksa wants to earn a place in history as another Dutugemunu, he has to emulate that ancient king’s post-victory action and make honorable peace with the Tamils before there is a recrudescence of violence. It will be a double tragedy for Sri Lanka if making peace proves more difficult than making war.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the independent, privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is on the international advisory council of the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Sri Lanka.