As South Africa knows better than most, a country cannot begin to overcome decades of internal conflict without a sustained effort at revealing the truth of the past and a committed push for reconciliation. If only Sri Lanka could learn that lesson.
It has been more than two years since the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a war whose final months saw both the Sinhalese-majority government and the rebels contribute to the massive loss of Tamil civilian lives. Rather than starting on the slow, painful path towards a more democratic and equal society, however, the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers have further undermined the country’s damaged political institutions and deepened the ethnic divide.
Progress toward reconciliation was always going to be difficult. Decades of political violence and civil war have polarised Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities and politicised institutions, particularly those involved in law and order. Conflicts have left hundreds of thousands dead, injured or displaced and entrenched fears and misunderstandings in each community.
Instead of addressing these challenges, the government has increasingly cut minorities out of decisions on their economic and political futures, clinging to its claim that the war was about “terrorism” and not an ethnic conflict. It has controlled narratives both within and outside the country, reacting furiously to any challenge to the official version.
The unwillingness of much of the million-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora to recognise the brutality of the LTTE and its share of responsibility for a largely broken Tamil society has only strengthened the government’s hand.
The Rajapaksas tell a different story, claiming to be pursuing reconciliation and accountability, in part through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by the president over a year ago. But this process is deeply flawed, as a UN panel of experts, including South Africa’s own Yasmin Sooka recently determined. Indeed the panel’s report specifically addressed the government’s claim that it had drawn on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), finding that the LLRC falls far short of that important precedent.
But even if the LLRC did have more in common with South Africa’s commission, its potential to contribute to reconciliation would still be minimal. As Sri Lanka’s long history of failed and ignored presidential inquiries demonstrates, these mechanisms are ultimately powerless. The country’s post-war course will not change unless the Rajapaksas decide it has to. So far, they have shown no interest in doing anything that would diverge from the Sinhalese nationalist vision they have embraced fully, as both means to stay in power and end in itself.
Instead, they continue to repress the media and political opponents, while manipulating elections and silencing civil society. Constitutional reforms strong-armed through parliament in 2010 have removed presidential term limits and solidified the president’s power over the attorney general, judiciary and various “independent” commissions.
Northern areas once ruled by the LTTE are now dominated by the military, which has taken over civil administration and controls all aspects of daily life.
The government has also defiantly rejected the growing body of evidence supporting allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides in the final stages of the war, including the UN panel’s report and a recent television documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, first aired by the UK’s Channel 4 on June 14, but since shown internationally and online. Sri Lankan officials continue to deny that government forces did anything wrong, but as more and more evidence emerges, their attempts to white wash the crimes are looking ever more absurd.
The frustration engendered by the government’s refusal to take any responsibility for alleged crimes, combined with the rest of its post-war agenda, are increasing the risks of renewed violence.
The international community should push for a fundamental change of course.
South Africa can play an important role in this process. It can use its influence with other emerging powers and members of the non-aligned movement to advance the recommendations in the UN panel report, including their call for an international investigation into alleged atrocities by both sides. It should encourage other governments to reject Sri Lanka’s attempt to dismiss any international scrutiny of its war-time and post-war policies as a neo-colonialist assault on its sovereignty.
If the government would stick to its promises to ensure accountability and devolve power to the traditionally Tamil-speaking north and east, such scrutiny would disappear.
Finally, South Africa should resist the government’s attempts to gain undeserved legitimacy by comparing the LLRC with South Africa’s TRC. Such a comparison is, frankly, an insult. Sri Lanka desperately needs a fair accounting of its violent history to avoid repeating it. The Sri Lankan people should not have to settle for anything less.
Louise Arbour is president of the International Crisis Group