In October 2015 the government surprised virtually everyone regardless of political spectrum, and friend and foe, when it co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. From the time that the war ended in 2009 onwards Sri Lanka came under pressure by this international body to investigate charges that massive violations of human rights had taken place in the closing stages of the war, which included war crimes. Together with crimes against humanity and genocide, war crimes constitute the triumvirate of international crimes for which there can be no amnesty according to current international standards. It may be a recognition of this that drives the opposition to insist that its leaders may face the electric chair.
The war ended on the battlefields of the north seven years ago on May 19. The commemoration of this day is a divisive one. During the period of the previous government, which claimed ownership of the war victory, the commemoration took the form of a victory celebration, with military parades and narrow ethnic nationalistic speechmaking that catered to ethnic majority sentiment but injured the sentiments of the ethnic minorities. At the same time the government also took action to ensure that there would be no commemoration of the LTTE or even of civilian loss of life. This led to the prohibition of any form of public coming together in the north of the country where the last battles were fought, even within places of religious worship, for the purpose of remembering the dead.
The re-opening of the EU fisheries market to Sri Lankan exporters came as a welcome success to the government at a time when it needs to show some tangible progress on the economic front to the people. The main criticism of the government amongst the general population is the absence of economic development and poverty alleviation in their lives. While a relatively small fraction of the population travels in luxury private cars, the general public continues to hang on to the footboards of overcrowded trains for their daily commutes to their workplaces and back with some of the train engines and carriages well past their fortieth year in service. Even those sections of the population who voted for the government at the last two national elections that saw the defeat of the old one are bemoaning the lack of economic progress in the present.
With bombs exploding in European capitals and other parts of the world, Sri Lanka finds itself in unique position in the world. It is a country that has not experienced a single act of terrorism in nearly seven years. The last of the terrorism ended in May 2009 when the three decade long internal war came to an end, albeit in a most violent way which has given rise to the international denunciation of war crimes. However, when comparing Sri Lanka to other parts of the world it is remarkable that following the end of the war there has been no act of terrorism. A part of the reason would be the years of experience gained in identifying and tracking down terrorist threats.
The government has begun to respond to the mounting criticism of its handling of the economy by explaining the background to the current economic crisis. The difficulty of the government to deliver economic benefits to the general population for more than a year since it assumed office is the biggest drawback it is facing at the popular level. Last week, development strategies and international trade minister Malik Samarawickrama gave a clear explanation of the government’s position on the economy in parliament. He pointed out that there were both external and internal constraints on Sri Lanka’s economic situation that were beyond the control of the present government. The external constraints included the economic downturn in China, the ongoing crisis in the middle east, the impact of the Syrian crisis on European economies and interest rate increase in the United States.
One of the positive features of the present time is the unity of the top leadership of the mainstream political parties. This was demonstrated in the eastern district of Ampara last week when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) held its annual convention under the leadership of Minister Rauf Hakeem. The event was attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition and Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan, and Minister Mano Ganesan of the Democratic People’s Front representing the Indian-origin Tamils. Each of these leaders represents the mainstream of each of the ethnic communities that together constitute the Sri Lankan nation. There was a visible manifestation of goodwill and partnership between the respective party leaders on this occasion which was evidenced by the speeches they made.
The issue of international participation in Sri Lanka’s transition process continues to remain a matter of speculation with different pronouncements being made by different members of the government. However, support for an international role in ascertaining the truth of what happened in the last phase of the war has received a boost due to the maiden speech in parliament made by former army commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. His credentials as a champion of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and unity as a state cannot be denied even by his political opponents. It was he who turned round the military debacles of an earlier period and achieved military success by leading from the front. Speaking in Parliament the former army commander said that Sri Lanka should permit foreign observers to participate in any inquiry on whether war crimes had been committed in the last phase of the country’s war.
The visit by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to the United States last month, and his assurance that the Sri Lankan government is contemplating international participation in the post-war acccountability process is an indicator of the pressure that the government is being subjected to on this issue. Neither the improvement in relations between Sri Lanka and the Western-led international community, nor the improvement in the human rights situation on the ground, is getting the international community to relent on the issue of international participation. However, there appears to be a willingness to give the government more time. The UN Human Rights Council resolution, which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government last October, had highlighted “the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the Special Counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defense lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”
At the next session of the UN Human Rights Council this March the government will need to present an update of its progress with regard to the resolution passed in October 2015. There has been some progress made by the government. More and more land in the North taken over by the military during the war is being returned, although about half of it still remains under military control. There has been a marked improvement in the freedom of movement and freedom of speech experienced in all parts of the country, and particularly in the former conflict zones. However, so far there has been little visible progress on establishing the mechanisms outlined by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in the run up to the last session of the UN Human Rights Council last year. It was in this context that his visit to the United States and the positive US endorsement of the Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process is important.
February 22 marks the anniversary of the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002 between the government and LTTE with Norwegian facilitation. This was an unexpected development that brought hope to the country that the war would come to an end and a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict would be possible. Faced with the prospect of economic collapse, and a protracted war, the government of that time headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sought to break the stalemate with a bold initiative. The sudden cessation of armed conflict came as a relief to the general population and almost immediately the wounds of war began to heal with people traveling for business and tourism from the north to the south and to the east. The benefits to the people of the peace process made it seem that it had become irreversible. But what was not seen so well at that time was that the ceasefire was only the start of the process, not its end. There needed to be a sustainable political solution that addressed the roots of the conflict.